In the second of four road games to close the regular season, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns took care of business against the Iowa State Cyclones in Ames for an 81-67 win on Tuesday.
Battling back from a knee injury a year ago, Texas senior guard Jase Febres provided a big boost with 3-of-4 shooting from three-point range, his most prolific shooting night since hitting 5-of-7 threes against TCU in late January last year.
Febres characterized his knee as 95-percent healed and discussed the difficulties of having to relearn things as simple as walking in his frustratingly long recovery from microfracture surgery that required plenty of focus on mindfulness techniques.
“Finally coming back and then being able to go out there and make shots and run and actually feel athletic again — that’s what the journey is all about,” Febres said.
Sophomore forward Kai Jones led the way for Texas with a season-high 17 points. During an evening that featured clutch 20-of-23 shooting from the three-throw line by Texas, Jones hit nine of his 10 attempts.
Defensively, his length and activity helped key two zone pressures deployed to high effect by the Longhorns — a full-court defense and a three-quarter court 1-2-2 defense that ignited a 17-0 run in the first half.
“We had good activity and we did a nice job with our front three guys having active hands and I think drew a couple 10-second counts, so that was big for us when we went on that run in the first half. That was a big part of it,” Smart said.
Jones finished with three of the eight steals by the Longhorns in the game, adding eight rebounds and two blocks.
“He had some plays tonight where he really played with great maximum effort and multiple efforts. When he does that, he’s really, really special as a player,” Smart said. “I’m happy for him that he’s kind of coming to this realization of who he can be, but he’s really just scratching the surface.
“We need this type of energy and multiple efforts from him as we go forward here in March.”
Foul trouble from senior forward Jericho Sims, who committed his first and second fouls within a span of 21 seconds before the under-16 timeout, hurt the pick-and-roll coverage from the Longhorns early in the first half and throughout the game when Sims fouled out in only 11 minutes.
Still, Smart estimated an effectiveness of about 75 percent when Texas was aggressive in those situations.
Compared to the pick-and-roll heavy Kansas game, however, Iowa State largely attacked in a different way by running actions that included staggered screens for guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, a uniquely dangerous player in those situations.
In scoring 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including 4-of-7 shooting from three-point range, Coleman-Lands was critical in keeping the Cyclones in the game without leading scorer Rasir Bolton.
“Coleman-Lands was terrific coming off of screening action off the ball,” Smart said. “I told the guys before the game and in our scouting preparation, I think he’s the best player in our conference coming off of off-ball screens and shooting the ball. He showed that tonight — he really got going.”
The 17 points from Coleman-Lands in the second half represented 43.5 percent of the points scored by the Cyclones over the final 20 minutes.
By shooting 51 percent from the field overall, including 9-of-20 shooting from beyond the arc, the Longhorns were able to provide some margin for error despite plenty of questionable decision making that led to 19 turnovers. A better opponent might have scored more than 18 points from those turnovers. Texas Tech certainly did earlier this year in Austin.
Smart was particularly concerned by the 14 turnovers from his three lead guards, including three first-half turnovers from senior guard Matt Coleman.
“Some of those turnovers are just unforced — Matt, I’m always on him about a lot of things, but I just told him at halftime, you can’t do that. This is not acceptable.”
There were impressive plays from those guards, like 5-of-7 shooting for 12 points and five assists for Coleman or 14 points on 6-of-6 free-throw shooting from Ramey with seven rebounds and four assists.
A lob from Ramey to Kai Jones provided one of the game’s best highlights.
Jaw. Dropped.— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) March 3, 2021
Courtney Ramey’s oop to Kai Jones is just... pic.twitter.com/ySDRq9v6pD
But in a game that got sped up in part because of the effective zone-pressure defenses employed by Texas, those experienced guards simply made too many mental mistakes. Combined with the inability of Sims to stay out of foul trouble, that would be a recipe for disaster in the NCAA tournament.
On Tuesday, the performance by the Longhorns was good enough. Really quickly, though, those issues could cost Texas the games that will ultimately define the season.