MINNEAPOLIS — As the streamers came down from the ceiling of U.S. Bank Stadium after the buzzer sounded on Texas Tech’s dream season, Brandone Francis walked off the court with tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said to coach Chris Beard, before turning to the Texas Tech cheering section and repeating the same sentiment.
The senior guard’s college career was over, as Texas Tech fell in overtime to Virginia in Monday’s national championship, 85-77. Francis came off the bench to lead the Red Raiders in scoring with 17 points, but he missed a 3-pointer late in overtime — and shouldered the blame for the loss.
“I put everything into this,” Francis said. “We didn’t get to this point to come second. Nobody remembers second place. I was trying to make history and leave a legacy. And not any kind of legacy. I was trying to win a championship.”
None of his teammates or coaches was willing to let him take the blame alone, though.
There was a sense of ownership in the Red Raiders locker room Monday night into Tuesday morning, with multiple players accepting their share of responsibility for the heartbreaking defeat.
“I’m sorry too,” Beard said. “There’s nothing wrong with looking another man in the eyes and saying you’re sorry; that’s a sign of strength. … I’m proud of Brandone for saying that. I feel the same way.”
After several minutes in the locker room following the loss, Francis walked to where Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens were sitting at neighboring lockers. Francis sat on the floor in between them and the three departing seniors held hands, quietly exchanging words for a few minutes.
It was the end of their college careers — but it’s not the end of Texas Tech basketball.
Every road trip that Texas Tech — and most programs in the country — takes, the managers and support staff put tape on the floor of a hotel ballroom to show dimensions of a basketball court. It helps with a pregame walk-through; it helps the coaches show last-minute tweaks or game plan adjustments.
It’s generally just a half-court setup, depending on the size of the ballroom, but at the Radisson Blu in Minneapolis, the Red Raiders were able to expand their taped-down basketball court.
And on one of the baselines was a new mantra for Beard and Texas Tech: Smell the roses.
While the Final Four was indeed a business trip for the Red Raiders, it also was the first time in program history they had reached the national semifinals. And Beard wanted to make sure his team enjoyed it.
“Coach brought that to us a couple weeks ago: Enjoy the moments. Not too many people in life get the moments that we’re getting,” sophomore Jarrett Culver said over the weekend. “Everybody’s going to remember this Final Four we came to and how great it’s been to us. Smell the roses is like, enjoy the moment, live in the moment and enjoy everything that’s going on around you.”
“That message was very clear as soon as we got back to Lubbock,” assistant coach Brian Burg said on Sunday. “We’re going to have more fun than any other team in the country. We’re going to enjoy this experience; we’re not going to take it for granted whatsoever. At the same time, we’re going to prepare like we always do and be ready to play for 80 minutes here in Minneapolis.”
Tech ended up having to play for 85 minutes this weekend, as a 3-pointer from Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter with 14 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 68-68 to force overtime. After two Mooney jumpers gave Tech a three-point lead in the first two minutes of the extra session, Virginia went on an 11-0 run to put the game out of reach.
The loss is going to sting for a long time in Lubbock, with Beard calling it the “pain of my life.”
But when the dust settles, this is the furthest Texas Tech basketball has ever been in the NCAA tournament, the first Final Four appearance in program history. The players will look back on this and realize what they ultimately achieved.
“This was a hell of a ride,” senior Owens said. “We defied the odds and put in the work to get here. I’m gonna keep my head held high hoping that people will finally give us the respect we deserve.”
“Everything we’ve done is amazing,” Culver added. “The experience is something every single body in this locker room will cherish, will remember forever for the rest of their life.”
There’s going to be questions heading into the offseason for Texas Tech. Was this an anomaly or do the Red Raiders have staying power? Will things change now that Tech has expectations and top-ranked high school talent entering the program?
On paper, Beard faces another rebuild. Owens and Francis are gone, as is national semifinal hero Mooney and starting center Norense Odiase. Culver is a projected lottery pick, so the expectation is that he will leave, as well. It might be an even bigger rebuild than this season in terms of talent lost, but there are highly touted reinforcements waiting in the wings this time around.
Top-50 recruit Khavon Moore and four-star shooting guard Kevin McCullar took redshirts for this season. They will be joined next season by Jahmius Ramsey, the No. 6 shooting guard in the country, and ESPN 100 small forward Terrence Shannon Jr. Top-10 junior college transfer Khalid Thomas also enters the fold. The Red Raiders also are expected to be active on the graduate transfer market.
“It doesn’t matter what people rank us in preseason,” Odiase said. “They’ve been ranking us bottom of the barrel the last two seasons, and we were able to get to the Elite Eight and Final Four. … It will only get better from here. This is just the start. This team is not done at this stage. I really believe that.”
Tech didn’t get to this point — from 6-12 in the Big 12 in Beard’s first season to an Elite Eight run last season to a Big 12 regular-season title and national title game appearance this season — on the backs of top-100 freshmen and recognized names. The Red Raiders did it with graduate transfers, second-chance players and guys who were hungry for an opportunity.
The departing players believe in the culture Beard has built, though; they believe in the tenets of a program that has been one of the most successful in the sport over the past two seasons.
“The everyday, the day-to-day process and everything that we’re about — it doesn’t change,” Odiase said. “Players, coaches might leave, things like that. But we’ve established something huge here that will shine for years to come. … We’ll always have the underdog mentality.”
Texas Tech has needed to outwork everyone over the past three seasons — and Beard knew that. He said last year that the only way he knew how to succeed was by outworking people, and that’s how he wanted to build up Texas Tech. He didn’t expect to out-coach Lon Kruger or out-recruit Bill Self on his first day in the Big 12.
“It’s the reality. If I didn’t do this, then the results weren’t going to be the same. I’ve always had an understanding we were going to try to outwork people. Then it’s just the people I’ve worked for and we just believe it,” Beard told ESPN in 2018. “So, how are we possibly going to beat people? I think the only way is discipline and grinding it out. … We can’t waste a minute. If we do have an advantage, and I don’t know if we do, then we’ve gotta get it over time and we’ve gotta be disciplined to get it.”
That’s why the staff stayed up until 6:30 a.m. on Sunday after beating Michigan State on Saturday night. That’s why they discussed a game plan until 3 a.m. on Monday.
So, while the Red Raiders came up short on Monday night, they already left their imprint on Texas Tech basketball — but they also don’t think it’s a one-time deal.
“Last year, with our Elite Eight loss, that was painful,” Beard said. “We said, ‘Hey, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to keep fighting and scrapping to build a program that’s relevant in the Big 12 and ultimately in the national tournament. We’re going to get back to work tomorrow and we’ll try to be right back here next year, somehow, someway.'”
“The message is, we’re not going anywhere,” Beard added. “This was year three, and we keep building this thing to get better and better and better.”
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