Two days before Texas Tech’s biggest win in at least two years, Chris Walker began an address to his team by invoking a name synonymous with college basketball royalty.
“I gave them (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski’s record his first three years in conference play,” the Tech coach said. “It was 6-8, 4-10 and 3-11. I said, ‘Did you guys know that?’ They said, ‘No.’”
The message was clear: Even a program as powerful as Duke, with its four national titles and 10 championship-game appearances, had to start somewhere. Stay the course, Walker told his squad, and hard work will be rewarded.
It was perhaps ironic, then, that on a night when top-ranked Duke looked more like the team during those lean years early in Krzyzewski’s tenure, losing by 27 points to No. 25 Miami, Tech broke through with a 56-51 victory against Iowa State, a team that had won seven of its last eight games.
The result of Wednesday night’s game in Lubbock certainly won’t have anyone confusing Red Raiders with Blue Devils. Tech won’t be winning the Big 12 this season. Barring the type of miraculous run they make movies about, this team won’t be playing in the NCAA tournament. And the win against the Cyclones doesn’t mean growing pains — and perhaps even more lopsided losses — aren’t in Tech’s near future.
Walker acknowledged after the game that the rest of the season is likely to be filled with “peaks and valleys.”
But make no mistake, Tech’s upset of Iowa State was a peak of a high order.
Perhaps, in time, a January home conference win won’t illicit anything more for Tech than a few high fives and a quick look ahead to the next opponent. But every journey — Walker’s favorite word to describe the future his team faces — needs fuel, a few gallons of motivation in the tank to keep things moving.
“This win was really a boost to our confidence,” said Tech forward Jordan Tolbert, who recorded 13 points and eight rebounds in the win. “Now we know we can do it.”
Therein lies the power of a win like Wednesday’s. Coaches preach to their players to follow the plan, even when things look glum. They implore their teams to have faith, to trust in the process. But as much as Walker and his staff have done just that, it can be difficult for young players to believe they are improving when the scoreboard tells them they’re not.
“We proved we could play against a quality opponent and win,” Walker said.
The “how” behind the Red Raiders’ win may provide further confidence. Tech didn’t shoot particularly well (39.2 percent). It turned the ball over 15 times. And the Red Raiders watched a three-point halftime lead melt into a five-point deficit in minutes, in part because they made only one of their first six free-throw attempts in the second half.
The here-we-go-again feeling was there for Tech fans who had seen this team struggle mightily in the second half after being right there with teams in the first.
But the night ended with a much different feeling for the Red Raiders, who reversed the trend by finding contributions throughout the lineup.
Dejan Kravic helped set the tone early with six of Tech’s first eight points. Dusty Hannahs nailed a three, then followed with a circus runner in transition to ensure a halftime lead. Toddrick Gotcher got on the break and finished a transition layup to end Tech’s field-goal drought to start the second half. Daylen Robinson, mired in a deep slump from 3-point range, nailed a clutch shot from behind the arc with five minutes to go. Ty Nurse came up with a crucial steal — one of his three — in the game’s final stages. Jamal Williams played air-tight defense on Will Clyburn on Iowa State’s last meaningful possession, forcing him into a contested fadeaway 3-pointer that wasn’t close.
And then there were Josh Gray and Jordan Tolbert combining to score 20 of Tech’s 28 second-half points, including the last 10 of the game.
“Our coach came into the game and told us to have fun and play our game how we know how to play,” Tolbert said. “That’s what everyone did and that’s why we won.”
Walker and his team gleefully strode out of United Spirit Arena on Wednesday firmly believing a trip to Texas (0-5 in Big 12 play) on Saturday could result in another victory. Whether the game against the Longhorns yields a peak or a valley is yet to be determined. But Wednesday night left the Red Raiders to utter the potential of two words that haven’t been heard around here much recently during conference action: winning streak.
As Coach K would tell you, those have to start somewhere.
To comment on this story: