AUSTIN, Texas — With a trip to New York City and the NIT Finals on the line, the Texas Longhorns turned a close game halfway through the first half into a laugher by outscoring the Colorado Buffaloes by 24 points over the final 10 minutes and then cruising in the second half for a 68-55 victory at the Erwin Center on Wednesday.
During the dominant 30-6 stretch in the first half, the Longhorns pressured the offensively-challenged Buffaloes into mistakes offensively — Colorado turned the ball over nine times in the first half and made only seven baskets — and used strong shooting to torch a good defense that entered the game ranked No. 40 nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency.
“Number one, we couldn’t score, and our transition defensive wasn’t good,” Colorado head coach Tad Boyle said, citing a play in the first half when McKinley Wright IV made a layup and Texas senior guard Kerwin Roach II got up the court so quickly that he was fouled six seconds later.
“Those are the things — you can’t let that happen,” Boyle said. “When you score the ball, you’ve got to get back and wall it up in transition.” Overall, the Longhorns outscored the Buffaloes 8-2 on fast breaks, with all eight coming in the first half, and manufactured six dunks compared to zero by Colorado while building a 34-20 advantage on points in the paint.
Texas shot 50 percent in the first half to take a 44-19 lead into halftime, including 7-of-13 shooting from three (53.8 percent), to score 1.222 points per possession. Senior forward Dylan Osetkowski missed his first two shots, then hit six in a row to lead the Longhorns with 13 points, while Roach and sophomore guard Matt Coleman both scored eight.
“They started feeling it,” Boyle said. “They started making shots and it gets kind of contagious. Making shots is contagious sometimes, just like missing shots is contagious. Basketball is a game of runs, we know that — they made that run in the first half and we didn’t have any answers.”
One possible answer was star wing Tyler Bey, who presented the biggest matchup issue for Texas, but missed his first six shots and finished the half with only two points. The sophomore eventually scored 16 points in the second half, nearly half of the team’s points. At that point, however, it was too late, as Colorado never seriously threatened Texas and Bey finished -19 for the game.
After the game, head coach Shaka Smart had high praise for his team’s effort and attention to detail defensively in the first half that forced Colorado into its second and third options in their offensive sets.
“The first half was one of our best, if not our best, defensive half of basketball,” Smart said. “Our guys played really hard, but they played with an intelligence about what we were trying to do to take them out of what they were running.”
Indeed, everything really was going right for the Horns in that half — even freshman forward Gerald Liddell, who has seen his most extended action of the season in the NIT, made his first three-pointer of his Texas career.
No, seriously, everything. Asked after the game what went right in the first half, that was Osetkowski’s honest answer.
“We were making shots. We were moving the ball. We were sharing it, making other guys better,” Osetkowski said.
Highlights included a one-handed slam in transition by Osetkowski after one of his two steals in the first half, an alley-oop dunk by freshman forward Jericho Sims, and a five-point burst by Coleman, who made three three-pointers for the game.
The brightest moments of a sloppy second half also included Osetkowski, who found Ramey on a cut to the basket for a layup and then freshman forward Kamaka Hepa for a dunk as the clock ticked towards two minutes remaining. A move to a zone defense halfway through the second half by Texas head coach Shaka Smart helped limit Colorado offensively down the stretch.
Overall, Osetkowski and Roach, the two seniors, led the way to earn a rematch against the team that made their Senior Night so miserable. Osetkowski led the team with 15 points on 11 shots and three assists, while Roach added 14 points and three assists of his own. For Osetkowski, he’s calling Wednesday night his Senior Night and expressed his appreciation at being able to end his career in the Erwin Center on a much more positive note.
“Texas had two seniors who played like seniors,” Boyle said. “I thought their two seniors really made the difference tonight.”
As Smart acknowledged, that hasn’t always been the case this season. On Wednesday, however, it was, and it provided a big boost for a Longhorns team that experienced a 1-5 “faceplant” to miss the NCAA Tournament and end up in the NIT. On Wednesday, it was Texas that looked like the team with a 12-3 record in the last 15 games, not Colorado.
For a team that could have given up on the season after that disappointment, the postseason success has helped the team gel, according to Roach, and play with a sense of poise and pride that never showed up enough during the regular season.
“Our whole mentality for this postseason has been play aggressive, play confident, play loose,” Smart said. “It’s easier said than done sometimes, but I thought they did a great job of helping each other have that mentality in practice and then starting the game.”
So Texas is now headed to New York City to play TCU at Madison Square Garden on April 2 for a chance to play for the program’s second NIT championship. ESPN will televise the game at approximately 8:30 p.m. Central.