Several big stretches in the second half allowed the No. 15 Texas Longhorns a drama-free finish in a 76-64 win against the TCU Horned Frogs in Fort Worth on Sunday after taking a four-point lead into halftime.
“I thought at halftime our guys responded well — you could kind of tell that our guys were feeling a little tired just from the week — but when you’re an older guy and when you have a level of poise and toughness to you, you just find more, and I thought that’s what our guys did,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said.
Smart thought his players expected a bigger lead at halftime after shooting over 50 percent and turning TCU over 12 times in the first half, but the Horned Frogs held three-point advantages in points scored beyond the arc and at the free-throw line — the difference in the four-point deficit and a double-digit lead.
So the inability to pull away in the opening 20 minutes put pressure on Texas to play well in the first four minutes of the second half. The Longhorns did exactly that, opening the lead up to eight points thanks to five points from redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones and a three from junior guard Courtney Ramey. A 10-3 run midway through the second half helped create separation.
By the 10:43 mark, Texas was up 14 points, the largest lead of the game as Ramey got hot from beyond the arc, scoring 11 quick points in the second half, and making the right decisions with the basketball with three assists, including a lob slam by sophomore forward Kai Jones on a back-door screen.
Then senior guard Matt Coleman took his turn, hitting two threes, finishing a driving reverse layup, and adding a pull-up jumper to score 12 of the last 19 points for the Longhorns.
Andrew Jones led the way with a game-high 16 points on efficient 5-of-7 shooting, including all four three-point attempts. The big stretches from Ramey and Coleman accounted for the bulk of their scoring — 23 of their combined 27 points — as the two also tallied nine assists.
The performance was especially important for Jones, who turned in his second straight strong performance after struggling with his shot for an extended stretch. With the postseason looming, building some confidence for Jones was a big priority for the Longhorns.
“It means a lot — these last couple games have definitely been morale boosters for me,” Jones said. “I know I’m an important key to the offense and defense on his team, so I know I need to make sure I’m playing that in my best abilities in order to help us win. So last couple games as long as we got the win, I’m still figuring things out, but moving forward I think I’m going to be ready to really help with making a push.”
In the frontcourt, senior forward Jericho Sims continued his strong play, making 6-of-7 shot attempts for 13 points. Kai Jones added 10 points with two blocks and a steal and freshman forward Greg Brown III had a career-high four assists after entering the game with only six on the season.
“He really values that part of his game — he wants to be more of a playmaker, so it was good to see him find some guys, especially Jericho,” Smart said of Brown’s passing.
The ability of Kai Jones to quickly turn defense into offense continued to impress.
Ok Kai- just do it yourself pic.twitter.com/BOj6Sr3T2H— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) March 8, 2021
Texas had nine dunks, 30 percent of the team’s total made baskets, set a season high with 20 assists, and forced 22 turnovers that turned into 22 points for the Longhorns. The goal for every game is to record 32 deflections, a mark that Texas was able to reach on Sunday.
“The guys did a good job sharing a ball with each other,” Smart said. “This was one of our best games in terms of passing and creating for each other and the assist number shows that.”
Coleman thought that senior guard Jase Febres missed some shots he would normally make — Febres was only 2-for-6 shooting from three-point range on good looks — but overall that the ball and player movement were at the level that the Longhorns want.
“Still a lot of things we can clean up,” Coleman said. “I feel like everybody feels like they can play better. I know I can play better, just doing like the little things, but right now I just feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”
The TCU win capped a stretch of four games away from the Erwin Center, a scheduling quirk created by postponements early in the season. With those games compressed into eight days instead of the typical two weeks, the Horns took the right mental approach to finish 3-1.
“We could kind of feel sorry for ourselves for having to go on the road so much, or we can take it for what it is and try to go win games, and the guys have taken a terrific approach towards helping each other encouraging each other,” Smart said on ESPN+ after the game. “I don’t think we had quite all of our juice today, but they really found it when we needed it.”
After the game, Coleman was happy with the team’s level of connectedness, but Smart, with a typical coach’s reaction, believes there’s still another level Texas can reach.
“The biggest thing is just continuing to get more and more connected around what we’re doing on the offensive end or the defensive end today at times we got a little disjointed. We got a little bit separate,” Smart said. “We’ve got to continue to help each other. I think that’s the biggest thing over these last three to four weeks that we’ve been in the process of just building back, but our guys did a good job today of just fighting and continuing to respond even when TCU made some shots.”
Entering the week, Smart believes that full-court and three-quarter court pressure would help Texas in at least one game. Against Iowa State, the zone pressures made a difference as the Cyclones played without lead guard Rasir Bolton. It made a difference against a point guard-less TCU, as well, though when the Horned Frogs were able to break the pressure, they often got good looks.
“I thought up at Iowa State, absolutely that was the difference maker, and then today it allowed us to extend the lead for sure,” Smart said. “So people always ask me, ‘Why don’t you press 100 percent of the time all the time?’ And the reality is when our guys are flying around and with great activity, it’s really good. But on a possession where they’re not against a really good Big 12 team, Mike Miles can go down the lane and dunk the ball, so you know it’s always kind of a trade off when you go back and forth, but I thought overall it was really good for us.”
The Longhorns now enter the postseason with six wins in the last eight games and the type of momentum that every team desires as the calendar flips from February to March.
With the win, Texas clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 Tournament thereby avoiding a potential semifinals matchup against Baylor. The Longhorns tip off the tournament in Kansas City with the late game on Thursday against the Red Raiders after dropping both regular-season games to Texas Tech.
Is that momentum real, though?
“Well, if we capitalize on it,” Smart replied.