NEW YORK — The Texas Longhorns will play for a second NIT title on Thursday after a dominant defensive performance against the TCU Horned Frogs in a 58-44 victory at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, more than making up for the Senior Night disaster to end the regular season.
“Played with great energy, continued to have a commitment to defense,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “Our guys were really motivated to beat them and it started on the defensive end.”
Texas held TCU to .733 points per possession and 28.3 percent shooting overall, including 4-21 (19 percent) from three-point range. In the first half, the Horned Frogs only managed 17 points, a season low for a Longhorns opponent.
After scoring 34 points against Texas in Austin, the Longhorns held Desmond Bane to 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting — everything was as difficult for him in New York as it was easy for him last month back in the Lone Star State.
This was a game about execution and intensity.
“Honor the scouting report,” Roach said. “We knew the personnel after playing them two times already, so we’re pretty familiar with them and their tendencies. We just got after it on defense, really.”
Texas kept the same pick-and-roll coverage it utilized against the Horned Frogs in the last game, but the bigs did a better job of giving help without allowing easy shots at the rim, while the guards all played with a high level of intensity, especially freshman guard Courtney Ramey.
Tasked with defending TCU playmaker Alex Robinson, Ramey held the senior to a single assist. Robinson did score 12 points, but his impact was limited to his own scoring, a rarity for a team that entered the game No. 13 nationally in its ratio of assists to made baskets. Overall, the Horned Frogs had to settle for seven assists on only 17 makes from the field.
The transition defense was a major difference, as well — TCU scored five points on fast breaks, in stark contrast to the last game, during which the Horned Frogs consistently got out in the open court and made the Longhorns pay for poor effort getting back on defense.
Offensively, Texas shot 42.6 percent and made five of its 15 three-point attempts, but senior guard Kerwin Roach II made up for the inefficiency of his teammates by scoring a game-high 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting. As soon as Roach entered the game, it was with an attack mindset and that approach never wavered over his 27 minutes.
“Got in the paint, was able to find some teammates and get the other team in a little bit of foul trouble and that’s what we need from him, whether’s starting or coming off the bench,” Smart said. “He’s obviously our leading scorer and he’s a guy that has a level of athleticism to get by his man and get the defense, and he did a good job tonight.”
In fact, Roach drew five shooting fouls and though he got frustrated at times because he only made three of his nine attempts at the free-throw line, his aggressiveness for huge for the Horns. It even changed the way that Smart ran his offense.
“We ran a lot of plays for him just because we could tell early on that he had a burst that he sometimes has to him, but we definitely wanted him to be aggressive,” Smart said.
Those plays included more off-ball screens than the Longhorns normally run, which allowed Roach to catch the ball with momentum against defenders who were a step behind. When combined with Roach’s athleticism, it was too much for the Horned Frogs to handle.
In a way, Roach said, it was about making up for his five-game suspension that caused him miss Senior Night at home. Then again, it wasn’t.
“Just really wanted to win and contribute the best way I can,” Roach said. “Coming off the bench, just giving my team a spark and contribute any way I can, offensively or defensively.”
Early on, it was Roach who provided a major boost to the Longhorns offense, as he hit five of his first seven shots, even as other teammates like sophomore guard Matt Coleman and senior forward Dylan Osetkowski struggled. One of those called plays for Roach, a rare back screen for Texas, produced a shot at the rim before Roach made one of several excellent cuts to the basket for a bucket.
And so, despite some missed opportunities at the rim, Texas took a 23-14 lead with 5:59 remaining, forcing Jamie Dixon to burn a timeout as the Horns were on a 7-0 run while holding the Horned Frogs scoreless for over three minutes, capped by a three-pointer from sophomore guard Jase Febres. By halftime, Texas stretched the margin to 31-17.
Both teams struggled to start the second half, combining to miss nine of the first 11 shots before the Horned Frogs made the expected run — misses by Roach at the line afforded TCU an opportunity and Dixon’s team took advantage, getting two baskets near the rim and then finding Bane in transition after a turnover by Ramey, his second of the game. Smart quickly called a timeout with the lead cut to 36-28 with 13:52 remaining.
“When we called the timeout, I told the guys, ‘You’ve got the change the look on your face. You’ve got to get back to being the aggressors,’” Smart said. “And they did. Again, it started on the defensive end.”
By the time the under-12 timeout arrived, however, Texas had turned the ball over four times in two and a half minutes despite only three turnovers to that point in the rest of the game combined. With the lead down to 38-33, the Longhorns needed to regain the poise that Smart said helped his team get to the semifinals as the Horned Frogs cut the lead to the closest margin since it was 18-14 at the under-eight timeout in the first half.
Finally, the Horns responded, as Roach cut off the ball once again for a dunk and Ramey found Osetkowski rolling to the rim following a ball screen, prompting a quick timeout by Dixon. TCU remained scoreless over the next 2:53 heading into the under-eight timeout as Texas regained the defensive intensity that Smart wanted, while Texas added another basket from Osetkowski on another rim run.
With the TCU run stymied, Texas was able to maintain a comfortable lead for the remainder of the game.
“Give Texas credit,” Dixon said. “They were more physical than we were and more active, and they really did a good job guarding our penetration to keep us out of the paint.”
As Smart’s biggest adjustments came on the offensive end running more plays for Roach, the adjustments attempted by Dixon didn’t work, as his team admittedly never found its rhythm.
Consider it a truly polar opposite performance for the Longhorns compared to Senior Night as the team overall has turned its fortunes around in this tournament. Ever since it began, the mantra from Smart was about how much he and his team wanted to keep playing. On Thursday, that all comes to an end against Lipscomb at 6 p.m. Central on ESPN, but only because it looms as the last possible game Texas can win.