After taking a 10-point halftime lead, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns had to withstand a furious comeback by the No. 16 Oklahoma Sooners in the second half as head coach Lon Kruger’s team tried to avoid a four-game losing streak.
In the final moments, Texas junior guard Courtney Ramey and senior guard Matt Coleman simply made too many plays for the Sooners to overcome in Norman as the Longhorns left with a 69-65 win on Thursday.
Oh yeah, there were some key free throws down the stretch from Greg Brown III, too, as the heralded freshman forward had to overcome an elbow from senior forward Royce Hamm Jr. in the first half that left Brown down on the court and bleeding from his face.
With the game still on the line, Brown took the in-bounds pass near halfcourt and was fouled with four seconds remaining. Less than a 70-percent shooter from the line, Brown wasn’t necessarily the ideal player to take those shots, but he calmly stepped to the line and made both to provide the final margin.
Seconds earlier, Coleman avoided the second scoreless game of his Texas career — the only other such performance came against Iowa State as a freshman — by hitting a jump shot after driving to his right with 13 seconds in the game. Coleman had missed his previous four shots and turned the ball over five times.
Head coach Shaka Smart said he thought Coleman looked tired after having a strong game against Iowa State the featured the type of pop and quickness and juice that Smart expects from his four-year starter at point guard. On Thursday, those parts of Coleman’s game just weren’t there.
Still, despite the struggles by the senior point guard, Ramey expressed his confidence in the process with Coleman over any results — it wasn’t about whether Coleman hit that big-time shot, it was about living with whatever happened.
“You’re going to make a play, you’re going to make a play,” Ramey and Smart and redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones kept telling Coleman late in the game. “Even if he didn’t make that shot, we were going to live with it,” Ramey added. “We were going to live with it because Matt is our leader, so even if he doesn’t make that shot, we’re going to ride and die with him every day.”
With Coleman struggling, Ramey had to step up down the stretch as the St. Louis product demonstrated the ability to rise to the occasion that makes him such a special player in clutch moments.
Oklahoma’s De’Vion Harmon dunked in transition to provide the Sooners a lead for the first time since early in the first half with just under eight minutes remaining.
Less than a minute later, Ramey caught a pass, faked a shot, then stepped back for a three that never even came close to touching the rim. Ramey followed up that huge shot to take the lead with another step-back three. With a little over three and a half minute remaining, Texas was still clinging to a two-point lead when Ramey passed up a solid look from three and drove into the paint, finding senior forward Jericho Sims for a dunk.
“I just had some good looks and I believe in myself — I feel like I’m a great shooter and great shooters are going to shoot, the shots went in, and it just helped our team,” Ramey said.
Making big shots in big moments is a special quality possessed by Ramey, who has the innate willingness and ability to step forward when his team needs him. He finished with 11 points, nine rebounds, and four assists.
The dunk from Sims gave the low-key Minnesota native his 10th shot attempt of the game, something of a benchmark for success set by Smart. Sims made eight of those shots, adding 12 rebounds and two blocks in a complete performance that included some fantastic work defensively.
“Jericho’s playing great,” Ramey said. “He’s coming into his own and we need that for our team. He makes it harder for the other team to prepare for us and guard us. I just like how he’s playing — he’s talking more, he’s more vocal, he’s doing more. He’s doing what we ask of him, so we want to keep him going.”
Smart called it one of the most complete games played by Sims during his four years at Texas.
The end result provided a stark contrast to the Texas Tech game, during which Texas gave up a halftime lead and wasn’t able to muster the level of desperation and poise on the road. Like Texas Tech, Oklahoma was trying to avoid a four-game losing streak and stepped up defensively coming out of halftime, taking away driving lanes, taking away the easier entry passes to Sims, and generally making things more difficult for the Longhorns after the road team shot 60.7 percent from the field in the first half.
“Our guys really hung in there and I thought the second half was a tough go for us offensively — they really, really turned up their defensive intensity,” Smart said. “I thought Kur Kuath was phenomenal on defense for them to change the game, but our guys hung in there and we won this game on defense. We won this game by just gritting our teeth.”
After Oklahoma hit five threes early in the game during a stretch in which both teams were scoring efficiently, Texas held Oklahoma to 1-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc in the second half thanks to strong pick-and-roll coverage, effective transition defense, and extra efforts on rotations.
Keeping Sims in the game was key after he fouled out in 11 minutes against Iowa State. Foul trouble for Sims can produce a “dark cloud” over the team, according to the Texas head coach, impacting rotations and the ability to get easy points around the rim offensively. Especially in a game that featured Sims taking advantage of favorable matchups against a small Oklahoma lineup often using Brady Manek at the five, the points in the paint from Sims provided a difference.
So did his ability to move his feet defensively on switches, like a block in the first half against Oklahoma guard Austin Reaves that set up a transition dunk for redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones before a three by Jones capped a 16-5 run that helped provide the difference in the game.
Jones scored 12 points in the first half to potentially break out of his recent slump with 4-of-6 shooting, including both three-point attempts, and two assists. It appeared that Jones was more willing than he has been in recent games to pass up decent looks early in the shot clock to attack closeouts and get his teammates involved with two assists.
In the second half, Jones wasn’t a big factor, scoring four points on two free throws and a driving basket over Reaves down the baseline, but he didn’t force anything, either, a trademark element of the entire Longhorns performance.
Especially in the first half, Texas moved the ball with a crispness and intent largely missing from the team’s performances since the COVID-related shutdown impacted the team’s rhythm so much in January.
Senior guard Jase Febres was both a beneficiary of that ball movement and a contributor to it, scoring eight points in the first half on 3-of-5 shooting with two threes as he made Oklahoma pay for giving him any space at all. He added another in the second half to continue his resurgence over the last two games, the type of development that will help the team in the postseason with his ability to space the court and demand attention from opposing defenses.
Even when Febres took a bad shot, he made up for it with effort, hustling down the court to come up with a block in transition that kept the Sooners from getting an easy bucket at the rim before halftime.
Brown made an impact, too, using some rare drives to his right hand to produce a spinning finish through contact for a three-point play and another tough finish with a running bank shot from a tough angle to spur his scoring in the first half. Just as importantly, Brown was an impact player defensively with three blocks even as he battled foul trouble.
“Greg is a plus athlete, I mean he’s an athlete with length, and the more and more he learns to use that on the defensive end, the more effective he can be as a two-way player,” Smart said. “Obviously for freshmen that’s an adjustment, but he’s had a few games now where he’s really really impacted the game defensively.”
With a 5-2 record in the last seven games, Texas has a chance to finish the regular-season ending road on a positive note with a win against TCU in Fort Worth on Saturday. Ramey feels good about where the Longhorns stand currently with the postseason looming.
“Today was a good step in the right direction for what we wanted to do,” Ramey said. “There’s certain things that we can do better — we want to watch film and practice and stuff like that, but I think we’re getting closer and closer and closer to having that rhythm.”