TULSA — Texas Tech got off to another slow start on Friday at the BOK Center.
This time, though, the Red Raiders overcame it thanks to a momentum-shifter late in the first half and renewed aggressiveness in the second half.
Third-seeded Tech put down a Northern Kentucky uprising with a 72-57 first-round NCAA Tournament victory that pushed the Red Raiders out of whatever funk cost them a Day 1 upset at the Big 12 Tournament last week and into the second round of March Madness.
Tech won its first-ever Big 12 regular season title this season, but then stumbled last week in Kansas City to last-place West Virginia. That malaise seemed to carry over early against the Norse as the Red Raiders struggled to separate and nursed just a 30-26 lead at the half.
Things changed after halftime, though. The Red Raiders’ suffocating defense and Big 12 player of the year Jarrett Culver took over.
“We just wanted to focus on us,” Culver said. “Put that (loss to WVU) behind us — learned and burned. We just focused on us, details, how we got so far and how we made a run in the Big 12 and how we got to the March Madness tournament.”
Said coach Chris Beard, “I think in the second half, more than any big adjustment, we just wanted to stay aggressive.”
Culver helped turned things with a crazy, desperate, acrobatic play in the final minute of the first half. After Northern Kentucky got within three, Culver grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled upcourt and then got pressure from Jalen Tate and Zaynah Robinson. Culver lost control of the ball, chased it down near the sideline and in one motion flipped to Brandone Francis, who dropped in a baseline 3 for a six-point lead.
“I don’t really know how he got the ball back and passed it,” Francis said. “I was just happy I was able to knock it down.”
In the second half, Culver was unstoppable. He finished with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He either scored or assisted on 45 of Tech’s first 66 points.
“Listen, Culver is an NBA player,” said Norse coach John Brannen. “He’s gonna be in the NBA for a long time. I don’t know what else to say than he’s a tough matchup. He can put the ball on the floor and score. We wanted to make him a passer. We wanted to force him to have a high assist night. We didn’t think that was what he necessarily did well, and he had seven assists.”
“We know the defense prepares for him every single game,” said Francis, “and he does a great job finding our shooters. I think he believes in us.”
Tech’s defense also surged in the second half.
NKU came into the tournament as a top 40 team in both scoring (38th at 79.1 points per game) and shooting (23rd at 48.1 percent), but finished with just 57 points on 37 percent shooting. Top scorer Drew McDonald was averaging 19.1 points and 9.5 rebounds but finished with just 5 points and 6 rebounds on 2-of-13 shooting (0-for-6 from 3-point range).
“They’re everything they’re cracked up to be,” Brannen said, “especially defensively.”
NKU finished with 17 turnovers, and Tech had seven steals and eight blocked shots, including five blocks from Tariq Owens.
“As a team, we just regrouped at halftime,” said Owens, who scored 12 points. “We came back to being ourselves and being the most aggressive team out there.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.