Texas Tech basketball: Red Raiders need to find their closer

One of the factors missing from this year’s Texas Tech basketball team is a player that can close out critical games by making plays.

Keenan Evans.  Jarrett Culver.  When games were on the line over the last two years, Chris Beard knew exactly who he wanted to have the ball in his hands.  While the Texas Tech basketball team might have a plan for the end of close games this year, what it doesn’t have is a proven closer.

That was a huge difference between the Red Raiders and Kentucky in Saturday’s 76-74 OT classic.  In the game’s most critical moments, the Wildcats knew exactly where they were going to get their points while Tech didn’t.

Down the stretch, everything the Wildcats did ran through their star sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans and their junior big man Nich Richards.  Hagans initiated the offense and Richards almost always got a shot or at least an important touch because the Wildcats know where the bread is buttered this year.

Compare that to the chaos of Tech’s final possessions. In fact, all year long, Tech has at times played hot potato with the ball in critical moments because there’s no alpha dog to take over.

That’s why the Red Raiders’ final possession of overtime resulted in Davide Moretti, best known as a spot-up shooter, trying to drive to the rim against Hagans, the best on-ball defensive point guard in the nation.  The result was a terrific play that sealed the game for UK as Hagans stripped the ball from Moretti, who then lost it out of bounds.

It would have made better sense for Tech to get the ball in the hands of Kyler Edwards, who is this team’s best creator off the dribble.  But because the current version of the Red Raiders doesn’t have a defined closer, there was no definitive plan.

Of course, on the previous possession, with the game tied 74-74, Tech saw freshman Terrence Shannon Jr. try to win the game by taking the 6-foot-11 Richards off the dribble along the baseline and the result wasn’t pretty with Richards forcing an altered shot.  With all due respect to Shannon, who is a promising player, that’s not the play or the player Tech wants to be initiating the offense in crunch time.

Sure, Beard and his assistants had to have drawn up something but in the heat of the moment, when roles aren’t as clearly defined, plans often become tougher to execute.  Just consider the difference in what we saw in the last two years and what has taken place in close games this season.

Last season, when Tech needed a bucket to possibly win the National Title Game in regulation, everyone in the stadium knew that Jarrett Culver was going to be the man with the ball.  Though it didn’t work out in that instance, it did earlier in the year in Ames.

When Tech needed to close out the game against Iowa State to secure a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, Culver took over.  Up just three points in the final minute, Beard led Culver go to work and he rewarded that plan by hitting a layup and then making two free throws on the next possession to seal the win.

One game prior, nursing a 52-51 lead in the Final Four with 2:29 to play, Tech again turned to Culver even on a night when he was far from at his best.  He hit a jumper for a 54-51 lead and then added a free throw a minute later.  Then, his 3-pointer from the top of the key sealed the win as it gave Tech a 58-51 lead with 1:01 to play.

That’s the type of closer this year’s Red Raiders are yet to discover.  It’s too bad a guy like Keenan Evans isn’t around to help.

In the 2017-18 season, he was one of the best closers in the country.  Of course, there was the 73-71 win over Texas in Lubbock when he hit the game-winning jumper to beat the buzzer in OT.  No one else on the team touched the ball on that possession as he isolated and drained the shot off the dribble.

Then there was the win against No. 2 West Virginia in Lubbock.  Leading 68-66 with just 43 seconds to play, Evans hit an off-balance jumper from the top of the key with a defender draped all over him to essentially seal that game.

He also single-handedly carried Tech to an OT victory over No. 22 Nevada in Lubbock that year. With his team down ten points with just over ten minutes to play, he scored 12 points in an 18-7 run that gave his team the lead.

He ended that night with 32 points, 25 of which came in the second half.  In OT, he had eight of the Red Raiders 12 points to bring home an 82-76 win.  Of course, overtime is where Tech has needed a hero this year as they are 0-3 in those situations with all three games providing the Red Raiders opportunities to win in regulation.

It has felt like the 2016-17 season, Beard’s first in Lubbock.  With Evans still learning how to take over, Tech struggled in close games.  In fact, that year Tech lost twice in OT and dropped three other one-score games on the way to missing the NCAA Tournament.

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Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until next year to see the current crop of Red Raiders find their closer.  This team is talented enough to go toe to toe with any team in the nation as it did Saturday but if someone doesn’t take over in crunch time, we will continue to see nip and tuck games get away as was the case against Kentucky.

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