AUSTIN, Texas — What happens when you take a team that creates and gives away turnovers at high rates and match them against a struggling opponent more than willing to get in on the turnover action?
An unwatchable first half between the Texas Longhorns and Kansas State Wildcats in which the number of combined turnovers nearly managed to keep pace with the number of combined made field goals at the Erwin Center on Saturday.
In fact, it took a last-second three from Texas sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa to push the Longhorns into the plus category in that ratio and a 31-27 lead at halftime after interspersing 6-of-8 shooting down the stretch with those ever-present turnovers.
The Horns led despite trailing 10-0 in fast-break points and allowing seven layups to the Wildcats.
In the second half, Texas came out with remarkable defensive intensity as sophomore guard Courtney Ramey continued to lock down Kansas State senior forward Xavier Sneed, who entered the game averaging 15.3 points per game, but only scored five points on 1-of-8 shooting. Meanwhile, junior guard Matt Coleman stepped up his defense on Kansas State junior guard Cartier Diarra. In the second half, Diarra only scored five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Overall, the Longhorns forced 10 turnovers in the final 20 minutes, including multiple shot-clock violations, nine blocked shots, and had five steals. Rather than getting pushed around by a physical team, like Texas did against Georgetown, Providence, and Baylor, the Horns were the aggressor on Saturday, clearly rattling the Wildcats in the second half.
Texas quickly stretched the halftime lead to eight, forcing Kansas State to call a timeout just more than two minutes into the half. The Longhorns promptly forced a shot-clock violation before Ramey hit arguably the game’s most important shot — a deep three from nearly 30 feet to bail out a poor offensive possession and push the lead into double digits.
The air seemed to go out of Kansas State at that point and Texas continued to play high-level defense, resulting in another shot-clock violation and another Ramey three. By the time sophomore guard Andrew Jones finished a lob in transition from Ramey, Texas had a 42-27 lead and Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber had to burn another timeout.
It only prodded the Longhorns to start a block party, as Texas racked up four blocks in 62 seconds before freshman forward Kai Jones was called for basket interference with 12:00 remaining to give the Wildcats their first points of the second half. It took another 90 seconds for Kansas State to actually make a field goal on a desperation three with the shot clock expiring. They missed their first 12 shots of the half.
By that point, though, the outcome was already determined, leading to extended garbage time that afforded some young Texas players an opportunity to see the floor. Notably, freshman center Will Baker broke his streak of 16 missed threes to start his career by banking one home. After his significant struggles to start his career, he probably didn’t mind.
“For this one to go in, even though it went off the glass, we’ll take it,” head coach Shaka Smart said. Smart knows that Baker is a better shooter than he’s demonstrated in games — he hit 32 consecutive threes during a shooting drill yesterday.
Coleman led three Longhorns in double figures with 14 points and four assists, but it was Ramey who hit those two key threes and trumped Coleman with eight assists of his own to go along with his 11 points. Junior guard Jase Febres played one of his most active games defensively with four blocks to make up for an average shooting night beyond the arc, but still managed to score 10 points.
While junior forward Jericho Sims had his double-double streak ended at three games, he did continue his string of efficient performances — his only missed shot on five attempts was a dunk attempt he couldn’t finish. He also had eight rebounds and two blocks. Weber praised his athleticism and noted how he helped key the Longhorns defense by moving his feet.
So let’s just forget that the execrable first half ever happened since Texas got into the win column for the first time before facing a stretch of 10 games that only feature one projected win.
If the Longhorns can play defense like they did on Saturday, protect the basketball better, shoot close to 50 percent from the field, and hit over 40 percent of their three-point attempts, they’ll have a strong chance of winning more of those games than expected.
For this streaky team, though, that’s a high bar to clear on the offensive end from a shooting perspective, but perhaps just coming close to those marks will be enough to pull out some wins if the defense can maintain its consistency.
Texas returns to action against Oklahoma State in Stillwater on Wednesday, the weakest team the Longhorns will play until facing the Wildcats again.