Josh Gray wouldn’t be denied.
Texas Tech’s freshman point guard showed the clutch resolve usually reserved for players with far more experience, leading the Red Raiders to a thrilling, 56-51 victory Wednesday night against Iowa State.
The first marquee win of the Chris Walker era broke a four-game losing streak and helped the Red Raiders (9-8, 2-4 in the Big 12 Conference) surpass their entire win total from a season ago.
“What an awesome feeling for my guys,” Walker said. “I’m very happy for the fellas. ... What I love about these guys is every single day they come out with a great attitude.”
It was Gray’s give-me-the ball attitude that carried Tech down the stretch. The 6-foot guard took over in the clutch, hitting a number of huge, hotly contested shots. The last one, a spinning drive and short jumper over an outstretched defender, put Tech up, 54-51, with 36 seconds left.
“Coach came in the locker room before the game and just told us to play our game,” Gray said. “He told us to play with confidence, so that’s what I did tonight.”
In addition to a game-high 16 points — 12 of which came in the final 12 minutes — Gray grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. He had five turnovers and made some plays that Walker mused made him want to pull his remaining hair out, but he came up big when the Red Raiders needed him most.
“I said to my staff, ‘Guys, we’ve got to let Josh loose a little bit,’” Walker said. “We’ve got to let him score.”
After Gray’s final score, Tech tightly guarded the perimeter just as it had done throughout the game. The Cyclones hit just 6 of 23 of their 3-point shots, a subpar mark for a team that relies heavily on its outside shooting.
On the penultimate possession, Iowa State’s Will Clyburn, guarded closely by Jamal Williams, missed a long 3-point attempt and Tech’s Jordan Tolbert hit a pair of free throws on the other end to seal it.
“When (the shot) wasn’t there,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said, “I wish we would have been more aggressive taking it to the hole instead of settling for a bad step-back shot.”
The Red Raiders were up 28-25 at the half, leading the Cyclones at the break for the second year in a row. This time they didn’t fade away like they had during the four-game losing streak. The result was a second Big 12 victory for the first time in two seasons.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Tolbert, who scored 13 points to go along with eight rebounds, helping Tech to a 38-29 edge on the boards. “It’s a feeling we need to get more. We need more wins like that.”
Iowa State began the second half on an 8-0 run, as Tech missed five of its first six free-throw attempts in the period.
The Red Raiders weren’t fazed. Gray hit a 3, then made all three free throws after being fouled on an attempt behind the arc. Tolbert followed with a pair of free throws and a layup that put Tech up, 43-39.
“I wasn’t going to let it get out of hand,” Walker said. “The big thing we’ve been talking about is 40 minutes ... that had been our theme.”
The Cyclones kept coming. The second of Korie Lucious’ back-to-back 3s gave Iowa State a 47-46 edge. But that would be the last time it led.
There was just too much Gray. He hit a driving layup and then knocked down two free throws after another strong drive to the hole. Fittingly, as Iowa State’s final desperate 3-pointer drew iron, it was Gray grabbing the long rebound and running out the clock.
“He’s a nice freshman,” Hoiberg said of Gray. “The kid has a chance to be a very good player.”
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