In an empty Erwin Center, the No. 4 Texas Longhorns fell short when a last-second play resulted in a turnover, ending a late comeback attempt against the No. 24 Oklahoma Sooners on Tuesday as Texas couldn’t overcome a nine-point halftime deficit.
Without head coach Shaka Smart, junior guard Courtney Ramey, redshirt sophomore guard Brock Cunningham, and senior forward Jericho Sims, Texas was down to eight scholarship players.
Against an Oklahoma team that draws fouls at a high rate and converts at the free-throw line at a high rate, the goal for associate head coach KT Turner in his first game handling head-coaching duties was to defend without fouling.
After 10 days off and with three players fouling out, the Longhorns were unable to accomplish that task — inconsistent officiating and some heavy feet for Texas helped contribute to 29 fouls called against the Horns and 34 free-throw attempts for the Sooners.
Despite the 34-19 advantage for Oklahoma in attempts at the foul line, Texas was able to make enough plays down the stretch to nearly overcome a 12-point deficit in the final 20 minutes.
Following a key three-pointer by junior forward Kamaka Hepa to cut the Oklahoma lead to 78-73 with 3:38 remaining, senior guard Matt Coleman made some big plays down the stretch, including an assist to sophomore forward Kai Jones for a dunk and a driving right-handed finish with 37 seconds left.
But then Coleman made a big mistake, committing his fifth foul against Oklahoma guard Austin Reaves far from the basket with 18 seconds left. Reaves entered the game shooting 86.4 percent from the line and made both to cap a 7-of-8 performance at the charity stripe to push the lead back to three.
Texas had a final opportunity when Sooners forward Jalen Hill was fouled after barely stepping into the court on a deflected inbounds pass, missed the first, then committed a violation when his intentional miss on the second didn’t hit the rim.
Turner brought in senior walk-on Blake Nevins to attempt the final inbounds pass. A former high school quarterback, Nevins is the go-to player in those situations for the Longhorns.
“In practice when we throw baseball passes, he’s the best one,” Turner said. “So we wanted to get him in and make that pass.”
The plan was for Nevins to find Jones, who would then pass to Hepa or redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones or shoot the ball himself. But the pass from Nevins sailed over the head of Jones and the clock ticked down to zero on the loss.
“During that second half, we could have just laid down and quit and our guys did a really good job of just fighting,” Turner said. “Every time I just kept telling them to take it possession by possession and kept fighting. I’m really proud of them and it’s something that we can really, really build on.”
Every time Texas was able to cut into the Oklahoma lead, the Sooners were able to respond.
When two free throws and a difficult layup by Andrew Jones trimmed the margin to 62-58 with 9:34 remaining, Hill made his third three-pointer of the game. Hill entered Tuesday’s contest 2-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc this season, but made all three attempts against Texas.
Then senior forward Royce Hamm Jr. hit a layup and Reaves promptly followed with a three, his second of the game on his first four tries after coming to the Erwin Center hitting 23.1 percent on the year.
Hamm responded with the first made three of his career, but Oklahoma hit two free throws and De’Vion Harmon made a jumper.
“In the second half, I think we ramped it up a bit, but of course we have a lot to improve on in terms of just boxing out and rebounding violence,” Kai Jones said.
Oklahoma had 12 second-chance points on 12 offensive rebounds.
Texas was in the game late in part because of a strong second half from Jones. In the first half, Jones had one of the worst stretches of his young career, turning the ball over four times, missing all five of his field-goal attempts, and struggling to come down with offensive rebounds.
After contact with redshirt sophomore guard Brock Cunningham, who tested positive for COVID-19, Jones was forced into quarantine for much of the last two weeks, which Jones admitted was a tough situation.
But he was able to bounce back in the second half with an assist from Turner.
“He was being honest with me the entire game, really when I was having some struggles and not making the best plays, he was telling me, ‘You got to pick it up,’” Jones said
In the second half, Jones did exactly that, Jones scoring 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting with two assists and a block. His five rebounds gave him 11 for the game, the first double double of his career.
The Sooners had some margin for error after an ugly start to the second half afforded plenty of free throws to maintain the lead. In the first four minutes, in fact, the officials called 12 total fouls, with Texas sending Oklahoma into the bonus during that stretch and Coleman picking up his fourth foul with 17:13 remaining.
Coleman got off to a strong start in the first half with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, but questionable foul calls helped take him out of the game. One called in the opening 20 minutes came when he got his feet caught up with a screener. Then the Sooners tried to take advantage of his foul trouble by attacking him in the post in the second half.
The foul trouble limited Coleman to only five minutes after halftime.
“My head might have blown up a couple times,” Coleman said of his frustration with the officiating.
The 29 fouls called on Texas represented 72.5 percent of the 40 total fouls to give by scholarship players.
Some poor luck hurt the Longhorns, too — in the one-point loss, freshman forward Greg Brown III mishandled an uncontested rebound after the under-16 timeout and saw it go through the basket. Brown fouled out with 3:50 remaining trying to draw a charge when he slid every so slightly into a driving Reaves before contact.
Mostly, though, a poor stretch in the first half was the difference in the game. An 11-0 run early helped create some separation for the Horns as Coleman hit his first three shots, including a three-pointer. During that stretch, the Sooners missed 7-of-8 shots and started off ice cold from the field — 3-of-15 shooting from the field and 1-of-9 shooting from three-point range.
Then Oklahoma went on a 13-0 run and eventually made nine straight field goals. In his first big decision as the acting head coach, Turner opted not to call a timeout to try to stop the surging Sooners.
“I just wanted to play through it and I want to say we did pretty good with that coming back, but I just wanted to play through it and save that timeout for the end,” Turner said. “I knew Oklahoma was going to make runs. I knew that going into the game.”
Oklahoma finished the first half hitting 12 of its last 18 field-goal attempts.
Considering that Brown and Kai Jones had only practiced one since returning from quarantine, it’s understandable that Texas got off to a slow start. One day, the Longhorns only had five or six players available to practice due to contact tracing from the positive tests by Cunningham and Smart.
As a result, Turner thought there were some mental and physical errors by his team — he wasn’t even sure how much Coleman would be able to play after how gassed Coleman was in practice on Monday. Overall, the 1.1 points per possession for the Sooners were partly a result of the Longhorns simply not moving their feet on defense, generally an area of strength for Texas, especially when Sims is available and capable of defending smaller guards on the perimeter.
In the end, though, the NCAA tournament selection committee will take into the account the absences when assessing this loss and Texas showed a lot in battling down the stretch despite facing so mjuch adversity.
“It really shows how good this team can be because when they fight, man, they’re a really good team,” Turner said.