With the game tied at 70, Texas head coach Shaka Smart iced Xavier guard Quentin Goodin before a potentially game-winning free throw with two seconds remaining in the second round of the NIT.
The ploy worked — Goodin missed his second attempt, but forward Zach Hankins secured the rebound and went up for a layup to win the game in regulation.
Showcasing the reactive leaping ability that makes Jericho Sims such an intriguing player, the sophomore blocked the game-winning attempt by Hankins to send the game into overtime.
Texas held on to win the closest game it played in the tournament.
So the block by Sims was the single most important play in an NIT run that had a chance to end in Austin with the disappointment of losing at the buzzer or blowing opportunities in overtime, during which Kerwin Roach II missed three of four free-throw attempts in the final 20 seconds.
The player who didn’t miss free throws in overtime? Sims, who was shooting the ball with his right hand instead of his left hand, as he did as a freshman. Given four opportunities in the extra five minutes, Sims hit all four of his attempts from the line. Overall, Sims improved from 42.6 percent at the line to 60 percent with the change.
With 11 points and seven rebounds against the Musketeers, Sims had a significant impact on the game, grabbing four offensive rebounds and keeping numerous other plays alive with his activity on the offensive glass. It was an illustration of just how good he can be, even against a physical team that tried to push the Longhorns around.
“Jericho was great,” Smart said after the game. “The way we want him to play is with a relentless approach to him. Those balls we kept alive were huge, the free throws he made were huge. Proud of him.”
Reaching that point wasn’t easy for Sims, who was expected to make a major leap as a sophomore, but instead struggled early and lost his job to freshman Jaxson Hayes. Much like sophomore guard Matt Coleman, Sims saw his playing time and production decrease during his second season on the Forty Acres.
“Obviously it’s been a tough year for him with a lot of ups and downs and challenging days and weeks, but he’s getting better and better,” Smart said.
With Hayes out during the NIT run with a bone bruise in his knee sustained in the Big 12 Tournament, Sims received his most extended playing time since early in the season and largely took advantage.
In the first two games, against South Dakota State and then against Xavier, he earned the team’s defensive award, called the pitbull. During the NIT opener, he made both of his shot attempts, collected six rebounds, and blocked two shots. Against Colorado, he had 10 rebounds, but missed a dunk that had Smart asking him after the game whether Sims needed his head coach to help him practice those shots.
“I asked him after the game if he needs me to work with him on finishing his dunks,” Smart joked. “That was the only complaint about tonight. For him to go get 10 rebounds is big. We make a big deal out of what we call rebounding interval, which is how many minutes it takes to get a rebound and he was just over two, which is really phenomenal.”
When Texas traveled to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals, a revenge game against TCU, Sims made another breakthrough, one that was particularly striking for such a quiet player — he was vocal on defense with his communication.
“His impact defensively yesterday was the most he’s done all year in just talking,” Dylan Osetkowski said the next day. “That was the first game all year I’ve heard Jericho call screens louder than whoever. He’s just made a big jump, just trying to continue to talk to him. The biggest thing is he’s just having fun. All of us are.”
With Courtney Ramey fighting over screens and making TCU point guard Alex Robinson a one-dimensional scorer, it was the bigs who helped ensure the guards knew they were coming and hedged just enough to get recover and eliminate any easy baskets at the rim.
Unfortunately, in typical Sims fashion, he took a step back in the final against Lipscomb. The defensive game plan focused on eliminating good three-point looks for the Bisons, which necessitated one-on-one coverage in the post against Rob Marberry, who boasted an impressive assist rate for a forward.
Sims struggled early, allowing Marberry to use shoulder fakes to get to his dominant left hand and prompting a sideline tirade by Texas assistant Darrin Horn. Because Sims wasn’t able to effectively execute the scouting report, he got benched. Ultimately, Sims only played 14 minutes, half of what he played against TCU.
As Roach said before his final game, progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line, so Smart and the other Texas players continued to push Sims all season to come out of his shell emotionally and become a more assertive, vocal, and consistent player.
“Yeah, it’s a constant communication with Jericho just about talking on the floor, talking to teammates on the floor, off the floor. Throughout the whole year compared to last year he’s just continued to get better and better,” Osetkowski said.
Sims certainly didn’t show straight-line improvement as a sophomore, with some of that improvement difficult to identify from the outside. However, the increased playing time during the NIT did provide him a building block heading into a critical offseason. Now it’s about continuing that progress and carrying it into his junior season.
“Next step is for him to get into that mind frame to just dominate,” Osetkowski said. “I think everybody knows his athleticism, his skill is unmatched, so when he gets the mindset of him knowing that he’s a real problem, he’s a killer — no one can really guard him. I think once he gets that mindset he’s going to be serious.”