As the No. 7 Texas Longhorns embark on the final leg of their Big 12 Tournament journey against the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday in Kansas City with the postseason conference title on the line, interim head coach Rodney Terry sees a team that has adopted his mantra.
“The thing I like most about our team right now is that I think they’re just living in the moment,” Terry said after Friday’s 86-80 win over No. 22 TCU. “We talk about it all the time — play the present, live where your feet are, enjoy this journey, be excited about it and wanting more, stay hungry. And this group’s done that, they’ve done that at an unbelievable level, and have had great chemistry doing it. So I wouldn’t change anything in terms of trying to get better. I think our guys are guarding as well as they’ve guarded all year and we’ll have an incredible challenge tomorrow against one of the top teams in the country.”
For the veteran Longhorns, meeting Terry’s demands on the defensive ends hasn’t always been successful, including in the loss to the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth, one of several areas where Texas failed to match the physicality and intensity of TCU. On Friday, however, it was a different story at the T-Mobile Center.
“That last game we played at TCU, they were more physical they out-toughed us at their place, they out-rebounded us by a large margin, we didn’t take care of the basketball, they had fast-break points,” Terry said. “They had two fast-break points in this game — they’re one of the fastest teams in the country — but taking care of the basketball early was a high emphasis and I thought we did a nice job with that. We had 10 turnovers in the game as opposed to 15 or more at their place, but our guys really responded, they responded well.”
The team’s mindset started early and in the frontcourt with forward Dylan Disu, who was told by Terry that he was going to get the ball frequently in the post. Disu scored the game’s first basket in the paint as an illustration of intent and finished with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting with eight tough rebounds, often out of his area and in traffic, as well as two blocks, the second coming on a layup attempt with 2:09 remaining and Texas clinging to a four-point lead. Seven seconds later, guard Marcus Carr scored a layup in transition in one of the game’s key sequences.
When Disu was dealing with foul trouble earlier in the second half, forward Christian Bishop, who hails from nearby Lee’s Summit, brought energy off the bench in front of close to 20 friends and family, scoring 10 of his 15 points in the second half while adding seven rebounds, three blocks, and a steal.
“You’ve just always got to put on for the city whenever you’re in town, so that’s what I was trying to do when I got out there,” Bishop said.
Did the hometown food help?
“Nah, that’s all me.”
Terry called it one of Bishop’s better games of the season.
“He had so much energy and will in the game, really lifted our team when he came in, an incredible lift offensively, defensively sitting down and guard [TCU forward Emmanuel] Miller.”
In Austin, Miller scored 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting before dropping 20 points on Texas in Fort Worth. On Friday in Kansas City, however, Bishop helped limit Miller to eight points with three turnovers.
Kansas advanced to the title game with a 71-58 win over Iowa State keyed by 52.3-percent shooting and 25 points from forward Jalen Wilson, the Big 12 Player of the Year. Defensively, the Jayhawks were particularly active, forcing 22 turnovers by the Cyclones and registering 13 steals and four blocks.
Last week in Austin, the Longhorns built on an eight-point first half lead, pulling away after halftime for a 16-point win behind 23 points from guard Sir’Jabari Rice off the bench. With forward Timmy Allen out due to a lower right leg injury, Rice has spent the last two games in the starting lineup, but has pressed at times in shooting 6-of-25 (24 percent) from the field and 1-of-12 (8.3 percent) from beyond the arc. Terry isn’t concerned about Rice or the scuffling Carr, however, trusting that the veterans will make plays on Saturday in winning time.
“They’re big-time players, I mean, they’re prime-time players,” Terry said. “They’ll play big, they’ll continue to shoot and score the basketball as needed. I thought, again, they gave us great leadership down the stretch even though they weren’t scoring. They were out there guarding and really just following the game plan offensively and defensively. They’ll shoot the ball much better than what they’ve shot to this point right now.”
Texas will almost certainly need them to against the conference’s top seed and potential No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“A well-coached team, a team that plays really fast,” Terry said of Kansas. “We’ve got to do a great job taking care of the basketball. Jalen Wilson, Player of the Year in the league, has had an incredible year. [Guard Dejuan] Harris is really the head of the snake, though — as he goes, they go pretty well. So we’ve got to do a great job on Harris. Thought Gradey [Dick] played really well at their place. We did a pretty good job on him last time around, but they’ve got a good team, one of the top teams in the country, and will put a lot of pressure on us to sit down and guard those guys for 40 minutes.”
The one area that the Horns can control more than any other might be the factor.
“The team with the most energy tomorrow is gonna probably win the game, so we’ve just got to come out with some pop and be ready to go,” Bishop said.
How to watch
Time: 5:00 p.m. Central
Radio: The Longhorns IMG Radio Network
Odds: Texas is a 2.5-point underdog, according to DraftKings. Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.