NEW YORK — A disappointing regular season gave way to a superlative NIT run and tournament title as the Texas Longhorns finished with a five-game winning streak courtesy of a 81-66 victory over the Lipscomb Bisons at Madison Square Garden on Thursday evening that was never seriously in doubt following a 24-7 run to finish the first half.
The program’s second NIT championship finally showed the consistency missing from this team all season. Instead of the team that lost to Radford and Georgia and Oklahoma State, the Texas team that showed up over the final five games looked more like the group that beat North Carolina and Kansas and Purdue.
“It’s great to see them so happy,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “Our team has gone through a lot of twists and turns this year, and those guys were extremely disappointed with the way that we ended the regular season. So to see those guys so happy and excited and connected with each other, really throughout this whole tournament, it says a lot about them and a lot about their character.”
For senior guard Kerwin Roach II, who was named the Most Outstanding Player, it was a story of redemption. Following a five-game suspension to end the regular season, Roach returned and led the team in scoring, finishing his career with the first 360-degree dunk that he’s ever attempted or completed in a game and a career-high nine assists.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do in real life,” Roach said of the dunk he’d only previously attempted on NBA 2K. “To do it at the end of my college career to win a NIT championship is even better.”
He added 16 points off the bench and led the team with a plus-27 mark on the court.
After the game, Smart defended his decision to allow Roach back on the team following the third suspension of his career.
“I don’t regret him coming back to our team, because that kid right there in that locker room has a sense of pride and accomplishment that he wouldn’t have had,” Smart said. “Kerwin Roach, he cares deeply about the University of Texas.”
For senior forward Dylan Osetkowski, it was about finally putting the “approach-goal mindest” Smart always preaches into consistent application during the NIT title run. Osetkowski led the team with 19 points, including three big three-pointers, and added 11 rebounds.
“Our seniors stepped up and played like you want seniors to play down the stretch,” Smart said. “Those guys had their ups and downs this year, and again, it’s great to see them finish the season, finish their careers on such a high note, win the championship, winning their last five games.”
For freshman guard Courtney Ramey, it was about displaying the maturity and toughness of a senior with his defense on star Lipscomb guard Garrison Matthews, a senior himself.
“I thought Courtney Ramey was probably the biggest difference in this game, even though he didn’t score a lot, but he did a phenomenal job on Garrison Matthews, who is one of the best scorers in the country.”
Matthews only scored three points in the first half and missed all four of his shot attempts. In the second half, he was able to draw some fouls to get to the free-throw line and convert, but didn’t make a field goal until 8:22 remaining, at which point he was merely cutting a 13-point Texas lead to 10. It was the eighth field-goal attempt for Matthews in a game that ended with the Atlantic Sun Player of Year hitting only 2-of-10 shots.
At one point during the second half, when Matthews forced up a three-point attempt that hit the backboard and failed to draw iron, he went back on defense talking to himself.
“My goal was to make sure that he didn’t get anything easy. Make him work,” Ramey said. “I knew that if he saw the ball going in early, it was going to make him confident, so my job was just to make it tough.”
Ramey followed the directions from his head coach — play smart, don’t help off, don’t gamble, be yourself.
“It’s the first time all year we ever guarded a player and said you have absolutely no helper responsibilities,” Smart said.
For seldom-used sophomore forward Royce Hamm Jr., it was all about bringing energy.
When Hamm checked into the game in the first half, Texas was just starting to find a rhythm after missing its first eight shots. Roach found sophomore forward Jericho Sims for a dunk and then combined with Osetkowski to make four free throws. The Horns had a five-point lead.
At one end of the court, Hamm came down with a defensive rebound. When Ramey missed a three-pointer, Hamm battled for the offensive rebound, then went up strong for the contested finish, prompting a Lipscomb timeout as the Texas lead reached seven points. After play restarted with quick exchanges on each end for both teams, Hamm soared for a block in transition and the Bisons never got closer than that for the remainder of the game.
“He was saying go all out, be a junkyard dog,” Hamm said of Smart’s directions to him. “He emphasized just stopping [Rob] Marberry. He had all of the points for Lipscomb in the first five minutes. Coach [Darrin] Horn and Coach [Smart], they just challenged me to go in there and give it my all and just play with a high energy and a high consistency, so that’s what I tried to do, and when I did those things, other things started happening for me as well.”
On the defensive end, Texas maintained its intensity from the last several games, gaining eight steals and forcing 10 turnovers by Lipscomb in the first half. The Horns turned those turnovers into 11 points, too, with eight fast-break points. Though Marberry was able to score inside, to the frustration of Smart and Horn, nothing else came easily for the Bisons.
And the lack of help was by design.
“They scored in the post on us early a lot, but we just felt like it we could keep them from making threes and keep [Matthews] from getting going, we’d have a great chance to win the game,” Smart said.
By halftime, the Longhorns held a 41-27 lead thanks to that 24-7 to end the first half, capped by a three-pointer from sophomore guard Jase Febres taken from well beyond the NBA arc. Lipscomb had 14 points in the paint, but only hit 2-of-6 attempts from three-point range.
“They did a great job of just running screens and being there on the catch and taking shots away,” head coach Casey Alexander said. “So we had to take what they would give us. We’re not the kind of team that can create the offense ourselves. We have to take what they give us and that’s what they gave us.”
In the second half, Lipscomb tried to make a run, cutting the lead to seven points when Nathan Moran hit a three-pointer of his own. Smart called a timeout and Roach responded after Febres missed a three with his own triple to stem the tide.
A long-distance make by Nathan Rose with 12:23 remaining once again cut the lead to seven, but Texas once again responded when sophomore guard Matt Coleman hit from deep and Ramey scored his only three points of the game.
Even though Matthews got to the foul line repeatedly in the following stretch, Texas made three shots from beyond the arc and added a dunk by Hamm to push the lead back to 13 points.
Lipscomb never threatened again as the Bisons degenerated into frustration and the Longhorns continued to share the basketball. In one sweet stretch, with the lead already at 14 points at 5:16 remaining, Roach found Osetkowski cutting to the basketball for a slam. Then Osetkowski returned the favor, hitting Febres on a cut. Normally a catch-and-shoot player, Febres finished through contact before finishing the three-point play.
When Febres hit a three on a pass from Coleman on the next possession, the route was on — Texas led by 22 points to remove all doubt from the outcome.
In finishing with 1.16 points per possession, the Horns were so effective because they shared the ball beautifully, with 23 assists on 28 made baskets.
“Highly efficient offense that executed what they wanted to do,” Alexander said.
And so Texas finished the season and the trip to New York holding the NIT championship trophy and cutting down the nets, while proving that they could find the consistency that so often eluded them.
Now it’s up to the returning Texas players, in combination with the three incoming signees, to define what this NIT title will mean moving forward.
“The meaning of winning tonight is something that’s going to be determined over the next several months by our team,” Smart said. “There have been some teams that have come and won the NIT and they have been able to use that as an unbelievable springboard into a more successful season next year and an NCAA Tournament run. There’s been teams that haven’t.”
Either way, the Horns will take some time to bask in the moment.
“I told the team afterwards, this isn’t something to take for granted because it’s not too often you get to win your last game.”