Final Four experience end of a long, fun journey for Wauconda native Mooney

  • Texas Tech's Matt Mooney (13), a Wauconda native, celebrates with teammate Kyler Edwards after making a 3-pointer during the second half against Michigan State in the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four tournament in Minneapolis.

    Texas Tech's Matt Mooney (13), a Wauconda native, celebrates with teammate Kyler Edwards after making a 3-pointer during the second half against Michigan State in the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four tournament in Minneapolis. Associated Press

  • Matt Mooney in his senior year at Niles Notre Dame. Mooney, a Wauconda native, was a starting guard for Texas Tech this season.

    Matt Mooney in his senior year at Niles Notre Dame. Mooney, a Wauconda native, was a starting guard for Texas Tech this season. Submitted photo

 
 
Updated 4/11/2019 7:19 PM

First, there was a long train ride.

At his stop along the train line, Matt Mooney then picked up a bus.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

From the bus stop, Mooney then walked the rest of the way.

Before he was old enough to get a license and drive himself, Mooney had to put in quite a bit of effort each day just to get himself to school.

The commute from his home in Wauconda to Notre Dame High School in Niles isn't an easy one.

But each and every day all through high school, Mooney kept moving and pushing and plowing through until he got to where he wanted to go, much like he has done with his basketball career.

Mooney was the Chicago suburbs' face of March Madness.

The once skinny, lanky and unassuming rush-hour commuter who was passed over again and again for college basketball scholarships eventually turned his dream of playing Division I basketball and experiencing the biggest stage of the NCAA tournament into a reality.

But much like his commute to school, it just took him a while to get there, not to mention some incredibly diligent effort.

Mooney was thisclose to being an NCAA national champion. He and his Texas Tech teammates fell just a bit short in Monday's NCAA national championship game, losing to Virginia in overtime, 85-77.

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But the 6-foot-3 Mooney, who started at guard for Texas Tech as a graduate transfer and had 10 points and 3 assists against Virginia, says that he was definitely still living his "one shining moment" that night, and many times over the past few weeks.

"It was crazy. I watched the NCAA tournament and the Final Four for years and dreamed about how cool it would be to get there," Mooney said of his Final Four experience in Minneapolis. "But I never really thought it would happen to me."

At one point, Mooney wasn't even sure college basketball would happen for him.

Texas Tech is Mooney's third college, after stints at Air Force and South Dakota. He wasn't heavily recruited out of high school and he's had to deal with a couple of serious injuries along his basketball journey, which started in Catholic grade school and junior high in Wauconda.

That's about the time that Mooney and his dad Michael, a Mount Prospect native and star athlete in multiple sports at St. Viator back in his day, met former Notre Dame boys basketball coach Tom Les. The Mooneys were impressed with the coach and Matt, a sharpshooter even at that age, wanted to play for Les. And since his grandparents live near Notre Dame, Mooney thought that the all-boys school could be a good fit for him, in spite of the long commute.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But when Mooney arrived at Notre Dame as a freshman, he wasn't necessarily turning heads. He didn't make the varsity until his junior year, and it took some time into that season before he earned a starting spot.

"He was tall and long but he was a late bloomer so he looked really young," Les said. "Even when he was senior in high school, he was a very good player, but you'd look at him and say, 'How old is that kid?' Because he looked like he was 12 or 13."

Mooney, who was playing on some highly regarded Notre Dame teams and was putting up good numbers, drew interest from college coaches, but nothing really stuck.

"A lot of coaches looked at him," Les said of Mooney, who graduated in 2013 after averaging 18 points and 6 rebounds as a senior in leading the Dons to a regional title. "But most coaches didn't think he was D-I worthy."

However, Mooney kept pushing, kept putting feelers out, and eventually he did get an opportunity to play at Air Force, and he grabbed it.

"Matt's work ethic was second-to-none," said current Notre Dame coach Kevin Clancy, who was on the coaching staff during Matt's career at the school. "He was a total gym rat. It was really hard to get him out of the gym. I think he was determined to show people he had a higher ceiling than they were giving him credit for. He used that as a chip on his shoulder, and that got him to Air Force."

A broken ankle forced Mooney to spend his first year of college at an Air Force prep school. He then got decent playing time during his first full season at Air Force, but he began to realize that the military wasn't for him. So he transferred to South Dakota.

Mooney had three years of eligibility left and had two solid seasons at South Dakota in which he started all 68 games he played while also scoring more than 1,200 points and picking up back-to-back all-conference honors. His resiliency showed again when he had to go through surgery on both of his hips midway through his career at South Dakota to repair injured labrums.

But Mooney bounced back well and he probably would have stayed at South Dakota for a third season but his head coach, Craig Smith, ended up taking the head coaching job at Utah State, and Mooney decided to look elsewhere as well.

As soon as Mooney declared himself a graduate transfer, his phone was ringing off the hook with offers. He chose Texas Tech over his other finalists -- Northwestern, Oregon, Arizona State and Creighton -- because he thought his best chance of getting to the NCAA tournament in his final season ran through Lubbock, TX.

"It was such a blessing to be recruited like that," Mooney said. "I always was confident in myself that I could play at that level, even when I was in high school. I remember all these dudes that I played against at Notre Dame and they were getting Division I offers and I really believed I was better than some of them. I think that kept me hungry. I just needed someone to see me and (Texas Tech head coach) Chris Beard told me that he had a great opportunity for me and that our team could do big things."

Mooney did some really big things in the NCAA tournament.

In the Elite Eight against Gonzaga, Mooney hit for 17 points and had 5 rebounds. He also went 4-for-4 at the free throw line and knocked down 2 big free throws late that helped cinch a Final Four spot for Texas Tech.

Against Michigan State in the national semifinal, Mooney rolled up a game-high 22 points on 4-of-8 3-pointers.

"The whole thing, the whole tournament, it felt like I was living the dream," Mooney said. "The NCAA does such a great job with the tournament and to survive and advance, it's just a magical experience.

"It was just really great to get there. I've been through a lot. It was a long journey for sure."

But long doesn't need to be a bad thing, even though, sometimes, the scenic route seems less than ideal in today's society.

"We're in an era of quick gratification, that's what people look for," Clancy said. "We talk to our kids on the team now a lot about Matt. Our message to them is about his perseverance and grit and work ethic and how that has paid off for him. His path to where he wanted to go wasn't a quick one, but he got there anyway because he stuck with it and he didn't give up."

Mooney won't give up on dreams that he still has either.

He's always dreamed of playing in the NBA. He thinks his stock has improved thanks to his NCAA tournament run. He's looking into getting an agent and getting invited to a combine.

"I want to play for as long as I can," Mooney said. "I want to play in the NBA, but if I have to start in the G-League or go overseas, I'll do that.

"We live in a society where we want things right away, and I've learned that anything worth having takes a lot of work and sometimes it takes time. I'm ready to work on it and spend the time to get to where I want to go. I just have to keep believing in myself like I always have."

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