AUSTIN, Texas — A 98-percent win probability. A projected 23-point margin.
Against a McNeese State Cowboys team that entered the game ranked No. 316 overall in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric and No. 339 in adjusted defensive efficiency, the Texas Longhorns were expected to roll through Saturday’s game at the Erwin Center.
Instead, head coach Shaka Smart’s team shot the ball poorly from distance and played even worse defense as only one team played anything close to inspired basketball in a 73-71 Texas win that needed some late-game heroics from multiple players.
“They were an aggressive team,” Texas guard Andrew Jones said. “They played with a nothing-to-lose mentality and that’s what they wanted to do with us — be aggressive. We knew they had capable shooters and a big man that is really good. The biggest thing we had to do was make sure we played to our standard.”
Consider that standard reached by the smallest of margins — the eventual outcome.
Exactly one year ago, Texas wasn’t able to achieve that minimum standard by making plays late in the game against Radford, allowing the Highlanders to come away with a three-point win in a loss that eventually helped derail the NCAA Tournament hopes of the Longhorns.
This year, Texas showed some growth in a game was won at both ends of the court as the Longhorns hit some big shots offensively and got some important stops defensively.
In the final minutes, the Longhorns received key three-point makes from guards Jase Febres, Andrew Jones, and Courtney Ramey after struggling from beyond the arc the rest of the game.
When McNeese State took a 64-62 lead with 3:36 remaining, Ramey hit a three to retake the lead. After Texas forced an offensive foul, Jones found Febres in the corner for a three, then hit his own after missing a good look on the previous possession.
Then Ramey went to the free-throw line with the game tied and 8.4 seconds remaining. He calmly hit both.
“No, sir,” Ramey said when asked if he was nervous. “I mean, I’ve been there before — it’s just basketball. My job was to either make it or miss it and they both went in.”
Defensively, Ramey made the key play to set up his final free throws. McNeese State tried to set up guard Dru Vuxhausen on the pick and pop with an opportunity to play high-low if Texas took away his look from deep. Ramey knew that Vuxhausen is a “big-time shooter” and hadn’t tried to drive much earlier in the game, so he took away the three-point attempt as Sims took away the entry pass into Sha’markus Kennedy.
With both primary options taken away, Ramey forced Vuxhausen to drive and defended him with tenacity, going straight up as the McNeese State guard tried to take the lead. Forced down towards the baseline, Vuxhausen couldn’t hit anything but the side of the backboard and Ramey came down with the key rebound.
“My job was to do a running jump ball to force a tough shot and that’s what I did. I was just happy the ball came back to me and the called the foul,” Ramey said.
Ramey still isn’t fully on track — he turned the ball over twice and missed three of his five three-point attempts, but still tied for the team lead with 14 points and make plays when it mattered the most.
“He’s a winner. You saw down the stretch the plays that he made were winning plays,” Smart said. “That bank shot he made was one of the uglier baskets we’ll probably make all year, but he finds ways to make winning plays. If he can approach the entire game the way that he approached the end of that game, then he’s really got something. Earlier in the game, there’s times where he gets tentative and a little hesitant on offense and that really, really takes away from him being the player he can be.”
Even after Ramey made both free throws, the Cowboys had another opportunity to tie or take the lead. Head coach Heath Shroyer put two shooters in the corner and set ball screen high on the court for guard Leondre Washington, who missed a challenged shot from beyond the arc.
The Longhorns only shot 29 percent from three-point range with 47 percent of the team’s overall attempts from the field coming beyond the arc.
“Just have to keep getting high, high-quality shots and then if they’re not going in, find ways to get into the paint and get to the foul line more — that’s probably the biggest thing for us is we’re not getting to the foul line enough,” Smart said.
For the game, Texas only attempted eight free throws after struggling to get to the line in New York last week — the Horns only shot 17 free throws at Madison Square Garden.
Jones believes “the flood gates will eventually open up” for the Longhorns from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Texas was able to win the game largely because of its efforts in other areas to make up for the poor shooting.
“I thought their effort was great, particularly playing through some frustration,” Smart said of forwards Jericho Sims and Gerald Liddell on the offensive glass. “Those guys continued to go to the glass. Jericho did a nice job — in these games he’s at or near a double-double and he can continue to play better and better. He had the turnover and then the charge. Sometimes in the past, he’s gotten down about that, but he continued to play. The six offensive rebounds were huge for us.”
Sims finished with 12 point on 6-of-6 shooting and added 11 rebounds, while Liddell hustled his way to three offensive rebounds of his own even though he struggled offensively with 1-of-5 shooting from the field.
Both coaches thought the offensive rebounding by Texas, especially early in the second half when Texas rebounded seven of its first nine misses, were the difference in the game — the Longhorns needed those extra possessions because the team ended up turning the ball over 15 times and shot so poorly. For the game, the 18 Texas offensive rebounds nearly matched the 19 defensive rebounds by McNeese State.
Kai Jones helped provide some of that narrow margin, too, scoring eight points on four dunks, including a lob from Jones in transition that ignited a sparse Erwin Center crowd for the first time in the game.
As well as Jones played and as good the Horns were on the offensive glass, Texas turned in perhaps its worst defensive performance of the season.
“Today was not one of our better defensive games,” Smart said. “McNeese deserves a lot of credit for how they attacked, but we have to ramp back up our aggressiveness on pick-and-roll coverage, on the ball, and that’s going to be a huge point of emphasis tomorrow in the film session.”
McNeese State entered the game hitting shots efficiently from beyond the arc and close to the basket thanks to the outside shooting of guards Kuxhausen and Washington and the inside play of Sha’markus Kennedy.
All three played well against Texas, as Kuxhausen made 4-of-6 three-point attempts, Washington added three makes of his own from beyond the arc, and the spacing from the Cowboys helped get Kennedy easy looks around the basket, particularly in the first half.
Kennedy finished with a game-high 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting as McNeese State shot 52 percent overall and scored 34 points in the paint.
So the Longhorns will continue emphasizing the key elements of assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s defense when the team watches film and then returns to practice.
Most of the issues stemmed from problems defending the pick and roll.
During the game, the first step from the perspective of the coach is to ask players to increase their intensity level to execute better. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to change personnel. The third step is to change coverage, and Texas did that during the game, switching up its pick-and-roll coverage several times, eventually moving to switching everything all the high ball screens on the perimeter, something the Longhorns can do because Sims has the defensive versatility and athleticism to guard opposing players away from the basket.
By switching those screens, Texas tried to take away Kennedy rolling to the basket. The change in coverage forced the guards to defend Kennedy and fight in the paint for position, but Smart noted one particular instance in which Matt Coleman was able to deflect a lobbed pass.
“It doesn’t really matter what coverage you’re in if you’re not aggressive enough,” Smart said. “You have to have an aggressive mentality.”
Smart was quick to credit the experienced group of McNeese State guards for the team’s success, but also said that Texas is a better pick-and-roll team than it showed on Saturday.
“That’s going to be addressed urgently tomorrow and that’s going to be something that we’ll get better at,” Smart said.
The problem that Texas experienced on Saturday is that regaining aggressiveness defensively, what Smart believes needs to be the hallmark of this team, is less effective after the opposing team gained the confidence that McNeese State did with its success early in the game.
Eventually, however, Texas played aggressively enough and hit enough shots to win.
After the game, Shroyer had high praise for a team that inarguably didn’t play its best game against the Cowboys.
“I was impressed with them on film, but I was even more impressed with them in person,” Shroyer said. “I think they’re really, really well coached. They run good stuff. They put their really good players in good positions. Defensively, they’re a bear — I think that we played really well offensively and I think we’re a pretty good offensive team, but they’re a bear to score against.”
Still, there’s plenty of room for growth for this team, growth that will be necessary over the next month before Big 12 play begins in January. Smart believes that growth will ultimately come down to the team’s connectedness, an area where Texas showed growth on Saturday against McNeese State after going 6-10 in close games last season.
“If we can have five guys connected around each other with just one cause — when we’ve done that this year, that’s when we’ve been at our best,” Smart said. “When we haven’t done that, we’ve put ourselves in a tougher position. And that’s nothing new, but it’s clearly something that we have to continue learning.”
Texas is off to its best start since 2014-15 and returns to the court next Tuesday to face UAB at 7 p.m. Central.