The Longhorns had a five-point advantage, but Lucas wasn’t convinced that the Texas team had a mental advantage against Kansas.
“Coach, you’ve got to convince these guys that we can win,” Lucas told Smart.
When Smart walked into the locker room, he saw what Lucas was talking about. Texas lost.
But Tuesday was a different day for a different Longhorns team that stepped back from the brink of disaster with a big-time performance in the second half.
Down by as many as 14 points in the first half, No. 14 Texas rallied in the final 25 minutes for a crucial 75-72 victory over No. 17 Kansas at the Erwin Center on Tuesday, the first Longhorns regular-season sweep of the Jayhawks in Big 12 history.
With 4:06 remaining in the first half, the Jayhawks were dominating the game with a small-ball lineup and poor shooting by the Longhorns. At halftime, Texas was 1-of-13 shooting from three-point range after losing some early intensity attacking the paint.
But in the second half, the Longhorns held the Jayhawks to under 30-percent shooting, including much better defense on Kansas guard Ojai Agbaji, who went 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range in the first half without having to dribble, but missed three of his four attempts from distance thereafter.
After a Christian Braun three-pointer opened overtime for Kansas, Texas scored layups by senior guard Matt Coleman and redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones before finishing the game with free throws from Coleman, Jones, and junior guard Courtney Ramey.
“Every coach kind of has his own bias,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said. “But to me, the defensive end has to be our foundation and you look at a night like tonight, we were 5-for-26 from three, shot 38-percent overall, certainly wasn’t our most efficient offensive game — Kansas had a ton to do with that — but holding them to 23 points in the second half, six points in overtime, flat out one is the game.”
Once one of the best defensive teams in the country, the Longhorns entered Tuesday’s contest against the Jayhawks barely within the top-100 teams nationally in defensive adjusted efficiency over the last 10 games, according to BartTorvik.com, but took a step forward in the final 25 minutes.
Senior forward Jericho Sims was a big factor in the second half after picking up two early fouls, serving as a low-post presence against Kansas forward David McCormack and closing out possessions on the defensive end — Sims had had six rugged defensive rebounds in the second half and made McCormack’s eight second-half points as difficult as possible.
Sophomore forward Kai Jones also had a big impact for Texas after averaging one rebound in 14.4 minutes over the previous three games. Jones had eight rebounds overall and finished with a high level of efficiency around the rim by taking advantage of his superior athleticism.
Redshirt sophomore guard Brock Cunningham was a standout as well.
“Unbelievable,” Smart said of Cunningham’s intensity. “I could not take him out of the game. I could not take him out of the game. He was just too valuable the way that he was flying around on defense.”
In the first half, Texas suffered from significant issues in communicating on defense, but when Cunningham entered the game in the second half, those problems morphed into an advantage as the high-energy Austin Westlake product directed the defensive efforts for the Longhorns.
Cunningham had an impact on the offensive end, too, competing for loose balls and moving the ball effectively — he didn’t score, but his impact was much more significant than the box score could indicate.
“These guys have been through so much,” Smart said. “I think when you go through a lot of adversity and challenges, that can really bring you closer together and make you stronger as a group or it can kind of push you apart and put you in a position where you’re making a lot of excuses and kind of pointing fingers. I’m really proud of the way that our guys came together tonight after Kansas had a phenomenal start and we were sluggish.”
Despite the big deficit and the poor shooting in the first half, the Longhorns were able to make the necessary plays to beat the Jayhawks twice in the regular season for the first time in school history.
In the moment, that has to mean something. Ultimately, however, the final four games of the regular season will have bigger impact on the perception of Smart and this team heading into the NCAA tournament.