For 25 minutes, the No. 12 Texas Longhorns were on fire against the No. 13 West Virginia Mountaineers in an empty Erwin Center, but down the stretch the Longhorns fell apart and weren’t able to make shots in the final minutes in a crucial 84-82 loss on Saturday.
Freshman forward Greg Brown III had an open three-point shot rim out with 1:27 remaining on a nice pass from senior guard Matt Coleman and a well-designed play coming out of a timeout resulted in redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones missing another open three-point shot with four seconds on the clock.
Coleman also missed the front end of a one-and-one with eight seconds left, one of only 10 free-throw attempts on the game for the Longhorns. The Mountaineers took 37 free throws thanks to 25 fouls called on head coach Shaka Smart’s team compared to only 15 whistles against West Virginia.
On the final play, a last-ditch efforts by the Longhorns, Brown was held before the ball was inbounded and senior forward Jericho Sims was hit on his arm as he attempted the game-tying shot with .3 seconds left, but neither foul was called.
Smart chased down the official after the game ended, but said he wasn’t provided with an explanation about why West Virginia was allowed to deploy such a high level of contact in such a crucial moment.
“Man, that was a physical play before the ball came in. I guess I’ll leave it at that,” Smart said.
After shooting 70 percent in the first half, the Longhorns came out of halftime with nine straight points on three-pointers from Coleman and junior guard Courtney Ramey, who finished the game with 28 points on 9-of-13 shooting with seven made threes, but fouled out with 2:26 remaining and was only able to play 10 minutes in the second half due to foul trouble.
The quick start to the second half then gave way to disaster, as things started to fall apart when Andrew Jones left West Virginia’s Sean McNeil unguarded for an open three, prompting an on-court exchange between Jones and Ramey that continued into the huddle during the subsequent timeout. The verbal altercation between the two players became so heated that Coleman had to physically restrain Ramey.
Texas had a 14-point lead at that point, but the blowup completely changed the game’s momentum — West Virginia closed with a 34-18 run by shooting 54.5 percent in the second half.
“We were not connected enough in the last 15 or so minutes of this game and it showed on the court,” Smart said.
Ramey characterized the altercation as the type of disagreement that happens between two competitive players and said that they put it in the past during a post-game conversation in the locker room that lasted significantly longer than normal.
The damage was already done.
Increased defensive intensity from West Virginia played a role as well with head coach Bob Huggins deploying a 2-3 matchup zone that resulted in key stretches of offensive struggles for Texas.
“I thought we got a little bit tentative — they did a good job kind of bottling us up on the side, so I kept telling the guys to try to keep it in the middle and attack from there,” Smart said. “We had some good possessions where Matt was able to get downhill. And then, to be honest, I mean we had a couple of times where a guy should have shot and didn’t when the ball was moved on the perimeter. And then we had some turnovers. I mean, there were some big, big turnovers.”
The Longhorns turned the ball over 10 times in the second half with Smart specifically mentioning a good pass from Sims down low to cutting sophomore forward Kai Jones with 36 seconds remaining that was fumbled out of bounds. Jones only scored four points in the game with three turnovers and finished minus-nine during his time on the court.
Andrew Jones struggled in the second half, too, making only 1-of-11 shots with two turnovers of his own.
In the first half, the Longhorns scored a season-high 53 points, including 10 from Sims in the first six minutes on four dunks, but the senior picked up his second foul with 13:32 remaining. Texas had a 22-11 lead before the whistle on Sims, which resulted in a three-point play that led to a surge by West Virginia keyed by a questionable foul call and then a questionable technical on Brock Cunningham during a 13-4 run.
It was one of the moments in the game during which the Longhorns simply weren’t able to stretch the lead far enough to take the Mountaineers out of contention. The officiating didn’t help, either — the bad foul call on Cunningham and the subsequent technical resulted in four points for West Virginia, more than the final margin.
After Sims went to the bench, Coleman and Courtney Ramey served as the engines for the Longhorns offense, aggressively getting to the rim and hitting from three-point range to combine for 25 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the first half, including a perfect 4-for-4 shooting beyond the arc. The two also combined for seven assists without a single turnover in dominating the game offensively in the opening 20 minutes.
After the 9-0 run out of halftime keyed by the three-point makes from Ramey and Coleman, West Virginia responded with a 12-2 run of its own that coalesced into the strong finish over the game’s final 15 minutes.
Now sitting at 7-5 in conference play, Texas is in a vulnerable position following the big blown lead and the big on-court blowup.
“As coach said, this is a crossroads — we can go one way or the other way,” Ramey said. “And we’re a veteran team, so we’re going to sit down and get better in practice and just look to attack Kansas on Tuesday.”