The hard-earned lead for the visiting team came in emphatic fashion, as three-time reigning Summit League Player of the Year Mike Daum slammed home a thunderous dunk in transition following a turnover by Texas senior guard Kerwin Roach II.
In front of less than 2,000 fans in the stands and with a sense of palpable tension in the air, freshman guard Courtney Ramey walked to the Longhorns huddle during an ensuing timeout. When he got there, he didn’t see any of his teammates bringing the type of energy that head coach Shaka Smart demands.
So Ramey made the obvious decision — he chose to bring the energy himself.
“Let’s f****** go!”
Leadership is about leading by example as much as leading vocally, so Ramey knew that he needed to bring the energy. Of course, basketball is also a game of mental preparation, especially for shooters like Ramey, so energy isn’t enough by itself.
Out of the timeout, Texas ran a set to get senior forward Dylan Osetkowski the ball with a chance to work into the paint. A good passer, Osetkowski saw Ramey’s defender sinking down from the three-point line and delivered a perfect bounce pass into Ramey’s shooting pocket in rhythm.
“I stepped in, DO made a good pass, and my job was to shoot it,” Ramey said after the game. “If I didn’t shoot it, I probably would have come out of the game. He made it easy for me, so I had to pay him back.”
Ramey squared and fired, finding nothing but the bottom of the net to tie the game. In the midst of a career performance, Osetkowski continued to bring the energy Ramey had demanded in the huddle, stealing the ball twice and finishing the second with a transition dunk. The slam capped a 6-0 run for the Horns.
“DO making those two big steals and then everyone bringing energy, it was a turning point,” Ramey said.
Down the stretch, the freshman guard was far from perfect — he had a steal and split two free throws late after an important defensive rebound, along with a turnover and missed shot — but he’d already helped his team respond to the game’s biggest moment with his leadership and production.
“We knew they were a good team, having a 3,000-point scorer and a good point guard who can shoot the ball and a good wing man who can shoot the ball, so when they were making their run back, we just tried to manage it the best we could,” Ramey said.
“When they took the lead, there was no doubt in my mind that we could overcome it. We just had to get more stops and be more aggressive on offense. You could tell that we were more passive and not doing what we normally do.”
Texas finished the game on a 15-6 run after Ramey’s succinct timeout demand, thanks in large part to the boost provided by his big three-pointer on the following possession.
Overall, Ramey scored 13 points by hitting 4-of-8 shots from beyond the arc, a huge contribution to a game against one of the nation’s top three-point shooting teams — the Longhorns knew that hitting from distance would be a key to the game and Ramey responded by raining it in from deep in matching Osetkowski’s team-leading four made threes.
“Courtney Ramey was the guy that gave us that spark,” Smart said after the game. “Him and Jaxson Hayes, on our team, have the best competitive spirit. Obviously, Jaxson couldn’t play tonight, so Courtney, when he’s in a good place, nothing is clouding his mind or nothing is bothering him, that competitive spirit is terrific. We’ve seen it before, but we need that more consistently.”
The demands of the head coach, especially in practice, weighed on the relationship between Ramey and Smart between the South Dakota State and Xavier games, testing Ramey’s maturity.
“He and I fight a lot on non-game days,” Smart said on Sunday. “The last couple of days with him, we’ve kind of been at each other’s throats a little bit in practice because I feel like there’s some things he can continue to do better. Sometimes he feels like I’m too hard on him or I don’t understand the way he sees it, but I told him, literally when he was walking out onto the court to start the game, I said, ‘All that stuff doesn’t matter if we can be connected during the game.’”
With Ramey taking over significant ball-handling duties and playmaking responsibilities, especially since Roach’s suspension, Smart needs his freshman guard not only to bring his typical competitiveness, but also execute the game plan.
When Smart recruited Ramey after his decommitment from Louisville, the Texas head coach identified those capabilities.
“His playmaking ability and leadership tie together an already talented class,” Smart said when Ramey signed. Before the season, Smart shared that Ramey’s “a guy that has a real chip on his shoulder and I love that he brings that to our team.”
Against Xavier, Ramey did it all. He had three assists and only one turnover. He crashed the defensive glass with a career-high eight rebounds. He made three three-pointers and scored 17 total points. He didn’t let a team that Roach respectfully called a bunch of bullies push him around, picking up a double-technical foul in the first half.
After Ramey’s technical foul, Texas finished the half with a 10-4 run marred only by the clock operator preserving a final possession for Xavier that resulted in a fortunate basket by the Musketeers.
“I hate losing, so you’re going to get that fire out of me,” Ramey said. “Then my teammates see that and they just jump aboard. And then they look to me to do that because that’s one of the roles that coach has given to me, just to bring spirit to the team and make sure that everybody is up and ready to play.”
The responsibilities extend beyond the court, as Ramey considers it his responsibility to check on his teammate’s head space between games as often as he checks on them and holds them accountable during games.
When Ramey makes a determination, he’s not afraid to share his opinion, walking the fine line between respecting the older players on the team while also understanding that, on good teams, younger players can hold veterans accountable and expect mature responses.
At times, Ramey hasn’t always modulated that message as effectively as Smart would like, surely, but there’s little question that he’s emerged as the team’s emotional center during some key moments in the NIT.
In the last 4:10 of regulation against Xavier, Ramey scored twice in the paint, assisted on a three-pointer by Jase Febres, and had three defensive rebounds. When regulation ended, the ball was in his hands after the block by Jericho Sims. Early in overtime, Ramey hit his own three-pointer to give Texas a lead it never relinquished.
By the time the final shot attempt by Xavier bounced harmlessly off the rim, Ramey had played all but two minutes and made key plays down the stretch to secure the victory. All without the freshman mistakes that plagued him during his three-point performance in Lubbock, for instance.
“Courtney was really, really good all game long,” Smart said.
Regardless of whether Smart ends up as the coach making that type of statement next season, expect to hear it a lot.