For a head coach who preaches mindfulness with his team, in a moment when his players celebrated amidst confetti raining down at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City on Saturday, Shaka Smart took a knee and spent a few seconds taking it all in.
The No. 13 Texas Longhorns had just pulled off a 91-86 victory over the No. 12 Oklahoma State Cowboys to win the first Big 12 Tournament title in program history, producing the pinnacle moment for Smart, whose competence and job security were questioned at nearly every twist and turn by the Longhorns over the last several seasons.
“I was just trying to take in the moment and really be present and be still and watch our guys and enjoy seeing them celebrating a championship,” Smart said. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. Like every other team we faced a lot of adversity this season and so I just wanted to just really soak it in and be 1,000-percent present in that.”
What Smart saw marked long journeys for many of the players who most influenced the outcome.
Redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones, who was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago, was able to ceremoniously place the Longhorns logo among the automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament. Not without some difficulty, but that seemed fitting, too.
After beginning to recruit senior guard Matt Coleman as an eighth grader some eight years ago and handing him the keys to the program when Coleman took a chance on Smart instead of choosing Duke, the Texas head coach was able to watch his chosen point guard accept the Big 12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
The Most O TSTANDING. pic.twitter.com/sC5KARZT7S— Big 12 Conference (@Big12Conference) March 14, 2021
“It takes a special type of guy to say, ‘Now I’m gonna do something different,’” Smart said. “And he did that and he believed in us in a program, and I’m just so happy that he’s able to live out what we talked about during the recruiting process and what we’ve talked about over these last three years.”
Coleman was truly outstanding against Oklahoma State, scoring a career-high 30 points in a sensational performance that saw him hit 10-of-14 shots, including 4-of-5 attempts from three-point range, as well as all six free throws.
Senior point guards matter.
Whenever the Longhorns needed a basket, Coleman created one. When Texas needed to make free throws, Coleman came through in the clutch. In short, the player known to his teammates as Matty Ice had ice flowing through his veins in Kansas City.
Just as Smart entrusted the program to Coleman all those years ago, Coleman didn’t merely play for himself on Saturday. He played for his coach, too.
“I’m just so happy for him because people shit on him, excuse my language,” Coleman said. “He takes the heat for those bad years that Texas had and it has led to this, and I’m just happy for him because I want this for him, not only for myself, but I want this for him because of what he’s been through. He’s been through a lot, and he’s been through it all here, and I’m happy for him.”
But how did Smart feel after taking the biggest step of his Texas tenure to quell the doubts surrounding his program? How did it feel to overcome the doubters?
Like Augie Garrido, actually. Smart had a chance to befriend the legendary Longhorns baseball coach before Garrido passed away in 2018, and Garrido told him about a similar situation in which he answered those doubters by winning.
“This is a gift to them,” Garrido told Smart.
The snub of senior forward Jericho Sims by the Big 12 coaches when Sims didn’t make the Big 12 All-Defensive team was a gift to the Longhorns as well. Smart believes that the mild-mannered Sims was motivated by what he termed a “joke,” calling Sims a “one-of-one” defender nationally in terms of his versatility to defend any position on the floor.
Of course, Smart was just speculating, because Sims rarely emotes and certainly wouldn’t admit that publicly, but Smart believes that he saw some rare fire in the eyes of Sims in Kansas City. He also saw a more consistent Sims.
“I think everybody knows how talented he is and as well as he played tonight, I don’t think after any of those individual plays anyone’s like, ‘Wow, that’s surprising that Jericho did that,’” Smart said. “It was more all of them together, putting all those plays together.”
Sims turned in his best performance at Texas, scoring a career-high 21 points on only 11 shots and corralling 14 rebounds while adding three steals and two blocks.
One moment was particularly notable — with a little less than two minutes remaining and the Longhorns clinging to an 81-76 lead, Andrew Jones turned the ball over, leading to a transition opportunity for Oklahoma State’s Avery Anderson III. Showing off his athleticism, Sims hustled back and forced Anderson to lose the ball out of bounds as he attempted a layup.
Walking away from the play, Sims did something extremely rare — he smiled on the court.
Asked about it after the game, Sims was back to his normal self. “Tremendous enjoyment,” Sims said, having abandoned that smile in the moment. Without the video evidence, one wouldn’t have guessed that, at least from his post-game demeanor.
What impressed Smart the most about the performance by Sims was his resilience. In the past, when a play or a call didn’t go in favor of Sims, Smart called those moments “debilitating” for his senior forward. Not so on Saturday, as Sims overcame all the adversity that the game threw in his direction.
The play that arguably put the exclamation point on the performance by the Longhorns was a pass from Sims to sophomore forward Kai Jones breaking pressure from the Cowboys after Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham cut the Texas lead to four with 17 seconds remaining.
Jones took the pass and slammed it home as he was fouled by Rondel Walker, sending Smart into a display of fiery emotion on the sidelines that rivaled and likely surpassed any other moment of joy in his Texas tenure.
Even after the game, Jones was still trying to process it.
“Man, it felt like a dream in that moment, to be honest with you, it didn’t even feel real,” Jones said. “After I dunked it I was just feeling the feeling of elation, just pure happiness. I’m so glad I was able to finish it off that way and win the game, but it feels like a dream, man, to be honest with you — it doesn’t even feel real.”
Receiving a rare start after freshman forward Greg Brown III left the court during Thursday’s game against Texas Tech, Jones responded early, scoring six of the first 11 points for the Longhorns, including another in a line of impressive coast-to-coast finishes in transition to key a 7-0 run by Texas prior to the under-16 timeout.
Brown’s meltdown against the Red Raiders heavily influenced Smart’s decision to bench the mercurial freshman, but Jones also made the start possible because of his energy in the second half against Texas Tech, playing with a desperation to get rebounds. Smart often cites the “unbelievable spirit” of his young player and Jones came through with 13 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.
“It was huge to me because it was just a matter of me knowing who I really was and just going out and being ready,” Jones said of his start. “I’m always ready when my number’s called and I was glad that coach trusted me tonight to do that, so I was ready to go.”
Jones battled foul trouble for much of the second half, but redshirt sophomore guard Brock Cunningham stepped up, especially with his defense on Cade Cunningham. In 17 minutes in the second half, Brock Cunningham had six rebounds, two blocks, a steal, and an assist. As always, though, his contributions to the team went beyond the box score.
“It’s really easy to see when you look at Brock out there — he’s either overthinking things and a little bit skittish, or he’s the ultimate warrior, man, I mean like ultimate, and when he has that look of the ultimate warrior, that guy’s gonna play heavy minutes for us, I don’t care who else we have on our team,” Smart said.
Brock Cunningham certainly had that look at times in the second half when exchanging trash talk with Cade Cunningham, the type of conversation worth virtually any admission price. Unfortunately, Cunningham wasn’t able to relate the content of those friendly discussions after the game.
“Just not letting them push me around, not someone to take anything from anybody, and just hold my ground,” Cunningham said of his trash talking.
Like Cunningham, the entire Texas team held their ground, withstanding the Oklahoma State rally in the second half after taking a 10-point lead into halftime. The Cowboys got within two points with 13:30 remaining thanks to an 8-1 run, but the Longhorns responded at every turn down the stretch — Oklahoma State never got that close again.
At one point, Texas made 14 consecutive free throws to maintain the lead.
By cutting the nets down in Kansas City, Texas didn’t just consolidate the momentum the team generated with three road wins to end the regular season, they created an indelible moment for their head coach. And Kai Jones, for one, is ready for a bit more March magic.
“I’m really happy for coach — he’s a pure-hearted guy,” Jones said. “He’s somebody who always puts his all into the game in terms of just focus and being locked in all the time. He’s always ready to go, he’s always thinking about basketball, so this is a magical moment for him and I want to make more magic moments for him as well.”