Led by 22 points from sophomore guard Andrew Jones and 21 points by sophomore guard Courtney Ramey, the Texas Longhorns defeated the No. 20 West Virginia Mountaineers 67-57 at the Erwin Center on Monday evening.
It was the most impressive win of the season for a Longhorns team that was without four players following the pre-game announcement that sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa has strep throat — the second win over a ranked opponent this season and the first over a top-10 opponent in the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency metric. The victory was also the first for the Longhorns over a top-four team in the Big 12 standings.
“It’s easier for guys to lose themselves in the fight when you’ve only got eight of them,” head coach Shaka Smart said.
The victory also kept alive the outside hopes at earning an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Entering Monday’s game, those odds stood at 1.7 percent, according to barttorvik.com, but will receive a much-needed boost with three regular-season games remaining.
Against the nation’s No. 2 defense, the game got off to an understandably slow start as the the Longhorns struggled with turnovers — by the under-12 timeout, Texas had turned the ball over six times and taken only seven shots. By hitting five shots in a row, however, the Horns took a 12-6 lead thanks to two three-pointers by Jones, who finished with five on the day.
The recent offensive struggles for West Virginia continued early, as the Texas defense was active enough to force six turnovers in the first eight minutes as the Mountaineers went 2-for-9 shooting, including three misses from beyond the arc. A four-minute scoring drought eventually included five turnovers before it finally ended.
Jones stayed hot, hitting a driving layup and another three-pointer off the bounce to score 11 early points to open up a 19-8 lead. West Virginia finally got on track offensively, however, scoring on three consecutive possessions to get within one point as the Texas offense stalled thanks to three turnovers and two missed threes by freshman guard Brock Cunningham.
When junior guard Matt Coleman finally hit a three, it stopped a scoring drought of nearly four minutes and sparked a quick 8-0 run that forced West Virginia to call a timeout after Jones hit his fourth three of the game. The Mountaineers
Texas finished the half up 34-28 thanks to 27 points from Jones and sophomore guard Courtney Ramey as the two combined for 10-of-13 shooting. The two stayed hot in the second half, hitting three three-pointers to maintain separation against the Mountaineers, combining to score 14 of the first 18 points for the Longhorns.
Despite foul trouble for in the injury-ravaged frontcourt that forced Cunningham to defend larger players and pick up four fouls himself, Texas was able to maintain its lead thanks to the inability of West Virginia to capitalize on trips to the free-throw line. In the second half, the Mountaineers were 7-of-14 shooting at the charity stripe and 10-of-21 shooting overall.
The Longhorns also held their own in the critical rebounding battle, with both teams grabbing 29 boards — the Mountaineers still recorded offensive rebounds on 42.9 percent of their misses, but 15 turnovers kept the margin in field-goal attempts to plus-eight for West Virginia.
With the visiting team in desperation mode late in the game, Texas attempted 22 free throws, hitting 14, and were plus-18 on made three-pointers by shooting 40.9 percent from distance. Jones and Ramey did most of the damage beyond the arc by hitting eight of the nine three-point baskets overall on 14 attempts.
When Jones and Ramey play well, the Longhorns are difficult to beat, especially when the Horns play with the level of effort and intensity on the defensive end that they did on Monday.
“I think since Matt hurt his heel, our last three games Courtney and Andrew have been much, much, much more aggressive,” Smart said. “Those guys have taken it upon themselves to be our lead guards.”
After the game, Jones credited the team’s attention to detail, aggressiveness, and passion as key drivers of the team’s three-game winning streak. Cunningham called it a sense of urgency developed since the Iowa State loss after a game in which his edge contributed more to the win than his final stats, which included two points and five rebounds.
“They say Texas Fight,” Smart said. “Well, tonight our guys really exemplified Texas Fight.”
Now the question is whether Texas can continue this momentum next Saturday in Lubbock against a Texas Tech team that is beatable, but only has two losses at home this season and the third-best homecourt advantage in Division I.