AUSTIN, Texas — “All day long, I kept thinking, ‘I want the season to continue. I want to keep playing.’”
The Texas Longhorns clearly felt the same way as head coach Shaka Smart, as the Horns scored the first 19 points on Tuesday evening at the Erwin Center and then survived the onslaught by the South Dakota State Jackrabbits to pull out a 79-73 victory in the NIT.
If the biggest question facing the team was whether they would respond after missing the NCAA Tournament, it was answered quickly and emphatically by a team that started the game aggressively on offense and defense.
“They came out and Coach [Shaka] Smart had them really well prepared,” South Dakota State head coach TJ Otzelberger. “He had those guys ready to go and when they got the opportunities, they made the plays. The size and the length and the athleticism — we were probably analyzing and evaluating it a little more than just attacking and being aggressive.”
Based on scouting other games South Dakota State has played against bigger teams, Smart expected the Jackrabbits to help aggressively into the paint and force the Horns to hit from long range.
“We knew they were going to make us shoot those in and our guys did a good job to start the game of being aggressive,” Smart said.
Texas finished the game hitting 15-of-28 shots from beyond the arc, compared to 9-of-26 shooting from distance for South Dakota State, a remarkable outcome considering that the Jackrabbits entered the game No. 2 nationally in three-point shooting at 41.5 percent.
Leading the way was senior forward Dylan Osetkowski, who scored a career-high 26 points, more than South Dakota State star Mike Daum. The three-time reigning Summit League Player of the Year needed eight more shots than Osetkowski to score one fewer point.
Freshman guard Courtney Ramey compared Osetkowski’s performance to Kevin Love.
“The biggest thing I saw from Dylan was what we call the ‘approach-goal mindset,’ which is going after something as opposed to playing not to make a mistake or to keep something bad from happening,” Smart said.
After the game, Osetkowski said that the game plan wasn’t centered on getting him the basketball, but he was focused on “letting it fly,” which allowed him to make 4-of-6 shots from beyond the extended FIBA-length three-point line. One early shot, Smart commented, was only in his hands for about half a second.
“I liked the way he was aggressive,” Smart said.
Substituting frequently and switching often on defense, Texas overwhelmed South Dakota State through the first several minutes. Jackrabbits star Mike Daum had a shot blocked, traveled, and turned the ball over on a Texas steal as the whole team struggled — the visiting team didn’t score until the 15:25 mark.
“They did a good job of keeping us off balance,” Otzelberger said. “Coach Smart is a phenomenal coach — they made great adjustments, they took our rhythm away early in the game, so it put us in a challenging spot.”
One key to the defensive game plan early was blitzing South Dakota State guard David Jenkins, who averages 19.7 points per game and draws 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes — he’s an aggressive player that Texas wanted to neutralize. In the first half, that plan largely worked, as Jenkins only made two of his six shot attempts.
The Horns forced some turnovers with that approach, but because the Jackrabbits were able to pass out and catch Texas in rotations, Smart moved to switching every ball screen to avoid those situations.
“When you’re playing against a really, really good three-point shooting team, if you blitz, if you hedge, if you corral the ball screen, you’re going to be in some type of rotation and then they’re going to get open shots,” Smart said.
On offense, Texas came out red hot from beyond the extended FIBA-length three-point line. The first five attempts found the bottom of the net and so did the seventh. The two seniors, Osetkowski and Kerwin Roach II were particularly hot, as the two combined to hit their first four three-point attempts, with Osetkowski adding two jump shots as well.
At the under-16 timeout, Texas was up 22-5 after scoring the first 19 points, then continued to play solid basketball — even freshman forward Gerald Liddell got in the mix, grabbing two offensive rebounds and scoring his third basket of the season on a confident move near the basket after the first rebound.
The Longhorns did cool off from beyond the arc and struggled to avoid committing fouls, but still led 31-17 at the under-eight timeout.
A 12-0 run by the Jackrabbits, who got hot from beyond the three-point line, closed to lead to four and forced a timeout by Smart. During that stretch, Texas went more than six minutes without scoring at that point, even though it continued to get good looks from beyond the arc. Just before the under-four-timeout, sophomore guard Jase Febres finally hit one to stop the scoring drought after missing his first three attempts. Ultimately, it was his only make on seven attempts.
With South Dakota State packing the paint defensively, Texas wasn’t able to get much going to the rim on rolls from sophomore forward Jericho Sims or dribble penetration by the guards, forcing the Horns to take two of every three shots from three-point range for the entire game.
With how well the Jackrabbits shoot from three and the free-throw line and the team’s lack of size and athleticism, that calculation by Otzelberger made sense — it’s been a common defensive strategy against the Longhorns all season.
Once the shots started falling again, Texas was able to hold off the comeback, even as Daum finally scored his first seven points of the game. Daum’s first points cut the lead to 34-31, but the Horns closed the first half by out-scoring South Dakota State 9-5.
Osetkowski remained hot to start the second half — Texas opened up running a set for Osetkowski and he hit a three. After drawing a trip to the foul line, he scored again from long distance, stretching the lead back to 13 points. However, Daum showed signs of truly heating up, hitting his first two three-point attempts of the second half.
Then the spread offense of South Dakota State started to give Texas problems, as the Jackrabbits started getting more dribble penetration and taking better advantage of switches on defense by the Longhorns. By the under-12 timeout, the lead was down to four points for Texas after a three-pointer by David Jenkins had cut it to two.
Two buckets by Daum cut the lead to one before South Dakota State took its first lead on a drive by Jenkins — with that score, the Jackrabbits were dominating points in the paint, 26-8. At the under-eight timeout, South Dakota State had a three-point lead, 67-64, after a steal and slam by Daum.
Texas responded out of the timeout with a three-pointer by freshman guard Courtney Ramey and a steal by Osetkowski, who made one of his two free-throw attempts. Ramey then drew an offensive foul to relieve some of the tension in the arena before Osetkowki got another steal that he finished with a one-handed slam.
The shot by Ramey was huge, as the tension in the arena was palpable coming out of that timeout. After the game, Ramey claimed that he wasn’t aware of it, he just knew that his job was to shoot it after Osetkowski passed out of the post because he was going to come out of the game if he didn’t.
Ramey had already made a difference during the timeout.
“I got in the huddle and I said, ‘Let’s f-ing go,” he said. “I just tried to bring energy — I could tell the energy dropped and nobody else was doing it, so I just figured I would do it. I think we went on a 5-0 run after that and we just took off from there.”
In fact, the Horns eventually finished the game on a 15-6 run after the Jackrabbits took that three-point lead. It was the type of energy that Ramey consistently brings to the team.
“Courtney Ramey was the guy that gave us that spark,” Smart said. “Courtney, when he’s in a good place, nothing is clouding his mind or nothing is bothering him, that competitive spirit is terrific. But we need that more consistently. I thought the spark he gave us was huge.”
Osetkowski continued to shine during that key stretch, scoring on a post play and then drawing a foul. Meanwhile, Daum continued his excellent second half, as the Texas held on to the slightest of leads.
When the Horns got a stop after Osetkowski split two free throws with :59 seconds remaining, sophomore guard Matt Coleman made 3-of-4 free throws and the Jackrabbits weren’t able to score on two huge possessions.
With 28.1 seconds left, Texas had a five-point lead, but desperation threes by Daum and Jenins missed, putting Ramey on the line with a chance to effectively ice the game. Ramey split his attempts and Daum missed another three to give Texas the win.
“Definitely proud of how we finished the game, because we’ve obviously had our tough, close losses. They took the lead, I think eight and some change, we called timeout, told our guys, ‘We’ve got to go make the plays on the defensive end and the offensive end. We’ve got to make more plays than them.’ Our guys did a good job.”
For a team defined by a 4-10 record in close games entering Tuesday’s contest, it was an unusual result aided by the torrid start.
“You can’t put yourself in that deficit — it makes it really challenging to battle back into the game,” Otzelberger said.
South Dakota State did battle back, but thanks to the energy brought by Ramey, Texas closed made enough plays to win down the stretch.
Texas will have to wait to find out its opponent and game date until after Xavier and Toledo play 6 p.m. Central on ESPN3, with the NIT bracket listing the second round dates ranging from March 21-25.