AUSTIN, Texas — With 17:16 left in the game, Texas Longhorns sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa left the floor after Oklahoma State Cowboys sophomore forward Yor Anei was assigned a flagrant foul upon video review after hitting Hepa in the face.
Before Longhorns junior guard Matt Coleman split the free throws, the Cowboys had doubled up the home team, 50-25.
Anei’s foul was emblematic of a Saturday afternoon that featured Oklahoma State, with its 1-7 road record in the Big 12 entering the game, repeatedly hitting Texas in the face. The Longhorns had no response but the walk off the court, dejected once again.
The resulting 81-59 Oklahoma State victory at the Erwin Center in front of the season’s best crowd, one that never had a chance to impact the game, could severely hurt the NCAA Tournament chances for a Texas team that improbably used a five-game winning streak to surge onto the right side of the bubble.
At 19-12, the Horns now have three blowout losses in conference play, two of them to lower-tier teams in the conference, and may need multiple wins in the Big 12 Tournament to make the Big Dance.
In fact, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi dropped the Horns from one of the first teams receiving a bye to the last team in the tournament.
For the fans, the only thing they really had to cheer about was when a blown speaker stopped buzzing in the second half after several minutes of incessant noise.
“Wish we would have played better for them,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said, days after imploring the fans in particular and the students specifically to come out and support the team.
“This is what guys want to play in front of and I think what’s so disappointing about this game is that we allowed ourselves to get down early, so it’s challenging for a crowd to get in the game. They really tried to support, but it was just a really, really disappointing game form the standpoint of the way it started.”
A 16-0 run early in the first half gave Oklahoma State a 20-3 lead as Texas struggled with turnovers and making shots early in the game. The turnovers slowed down, especially in the second half, but seven in the first half and 7-of-28 shooting in the opening 20 minutes put the Horns in a big hole they never came close to overcoming.
Smart thought that his players got tight after the poor early start — there were plenty of open shots, but almost none of them fell, especially 2-of-15 shooting from three-point range.
“I think our guys got that way after the start of the game, for sure,” Smart said when asked about it. “What happens is that if you get down big early, there’s still a ton of time to play basketball. We just kept imploring our guys to respond and go win the next round, but you could see on their faces early after they got up, they couldn’t believe it was happening.”
For the first time since the loss to Iowa State in Ames, Texas looked like a team that finished the game with eight scholarship players coming off of an emotional win against Oklahoma on Tuesday. Oklahoma State looked like a team that finished 7-3 over its last 10 games in conference play and managed to salvage a season that was on the brink after an 0-8 start in the Big 12.
Beyond the mental approach to shooting and competing in general, Texas lots its identity as the team that ranked No. 3 nationally in defensive efficiency during the last 10 games, including the winning streak. Even as Smart tried to tell his team how well Oklahoma State was playing.
“Felt like we were the opposite of who we’ve been the last five games,” Smart said. “Really, the last few days I’ve tried to impress upon our guys how dangerous Oklahoma State is — they played well today and deserve a lot of credit.
“We didn’t do nearly a good enough job, obviously, making them miss, defending them with urgency, and that’s really our formula. Any time that we’ve been really good, we lead with that end. Starting with the very beginning of the game today, we did not do that.”
The Cowboys shot 66 percent overall and 61.5 percent from beyond the arc after entering the game ranked outside the top 100 nationally in offensive efficiency thanks to poor shooting from inside and outside the arc — it was one of the worst defensive performances of the Shaka Smart era.
The emphasis for Oklahoma State was to force the action into the paint and then use that penetration to jumpstart the three-point shooting. Aided by the turnovers and transition opportunities, the Pokes were able to do heavy damage inside and outside.
“You’re always worried as a coach that guys will start to think they can win without doing everything the right way,” Smart said. “Obviously, today we learned that lesson the very, very hard way.”
The success of Oklahoma State senior guard Thomas Dziagwa showed how little resistance Texas provided defensively — Dziagwa got hot early and then never cooled off, hitting his first seven shots, including five from beyond the arc, and finishing with 19 points.
Dziagwa wasn’t the only Cowboys player to turn in a remarkably efficient performance, however. Senior forward Cam McGriff scored 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting and sophomore point guard Isaac Likekele added 15 of his own on 5-of-6 shooting. In other words, the Texas defense effort failed in virtually every respect.
Losing the contributions of the emerging role players hurt.
After buoying a guard corps that shot the ball well in four of the five preceding games, junior forward Royce Hamm, Jr. and redshirt freshman guard Brock Cunningham struggled to make a positive impact on the game.
Cunningham fouled frequently — four in 13 minutes — as he’s known for doing, but missed all three of his shots and failed to record a rebound in his first 13 minutes on the court.
And while Hamm blocked another shot at the rim in transition, he only scored a single point and spent almost the entirety of the second half on the bench.
So what happened to them?
“They were playing with some avoidance and not to make a mistake,” Smart said. “The only way that we can really be good with the group we have out is we have to flat-out go after it. We have to be willing to play through mistakes. We’ve got to lead with the defensive end. Those guys that you mentioned have to be junkyard dogs, and that’s what they’ve done such a nice job lately. We didn’t have that today.”
The lone bright spot for Texas was freshman forward Kai Jones, who scored a career-high 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, seven rebounds, and two steals, showing his activity level on both ends, especially around the rim on offense, while adding a three-point make.
Smart didn’t want to use it as an excuse, but there was likely some mental and physical drain on the players, too. Junior point guard Matt Coleman hasn’t practiced since injuring his heel several weeks ago. The widespread injuries to four other rotation players have forced Smart to limit the physicality in practice more so than he would desire. The short bench has forced heavy minutes on the remaining healthy players.
Redshirt sophomore guard Andrew Jones played 36 or more minutes in three of the previous five games, including 39 minutes against West Virginia and Texas Tech. Sophomore guard Courtney Ramey played heavy minutes throughout February until sitting with foul trouble in the last two games. Battling back from his heel injury, Coleman hasn’t played quite as much due to his heel, but did play 35 minutes against Texas Tech and 36 minutes against Oklahoma.
Coleman played well in the second half, scoring 18 points, but by then it was too late — the Longhorns simply couldn’t afford for all three lead guards to play poorly in the opening minutes and have a chance with the Texas defense failing to show up.
Now the Longhorns will face defining moments in the Big 12 Tournament this week in Kansas City with NCAA Tournament hopes on the line.
Can the team play with the aggressiveness, toughness, and sense of defensive identity that it achieved during the winning streak? Can the role players provide the needed junkyard dog mentality? Can the guards avoid getting tight if shots don’t fall early?
The answers to those questions will define whether this team is forced to return to the Erwin Center for the NIT or has a chance to earn Smart’s first NCAA Tournament win with the Longhorns.