Texas coach reacts to winning NIT championship
That’s what drove the Texas Longhorns on a run to win the NIT championship, a tournament no big-time program wants to land in.
For Texas and coach Shaka Smart, though, it served as a nice ending to what had become a seemingly lost season just a few weeks ago.
Texas looked the part of a NCAA Tournament-caliber team, pulling away for an 81-66 victory over Lipscomb on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Seniors Dylan Osetkowski and Kerwin Roach II ended their careers with standout performances. Osetkowski scored 19 points and had 11 rebounds, while Roach scored 16 points. Each earned all-NIT honors, and Roach was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“We did a good job of playing together, playing for each other,” Osetkowski said.
It’s the second NIT championship in Texas history. The Longhorns won the 1978 title, and were in the NCAA Tournament the following season. They hope to follow a similar path next season.
Texas returns an experienced backcourt behind sophomores Jase Febres and Matt Coleman III, as well as freshman Courtney Ramey. Freshman forward Jaxson Hayes has not made a decision about whether to enter the NBA Draft, although he’s projected as a first-round pick.
“We’re going to come into next season knowing we can continue to beat anyone that we play,” said Febres, who scored 17 points. “We’re going to have this confidence to play hard and make sure we come back next year swinging.”
The Longhorns didn’t do that consistently enough this season, playing themselves out of the NCAA Tournament. They lost five of their final six games, presenting the selection committee with a 16-16 overall record on Selection Sunday.
It wasn’t hard for the committee to throw the Longhorns in the NIT and things were not going well.
Athletic director Chris Del Conte got testy when asked about Smart’s job status following the Big 12 tournament, a topic that has since cooled with the NIT run.
Smart reflected back on that dreadful stretch before the NIT title game, using it to motivate his team in the college basketball’s consolation tournament.
“Obviously a lot of people had a lot of negative things to say about our team, our players, me, Texas basketball, and so we’ve challenged our guys’ pride,” Smart said. “Hey, is this about pride? Absolutely. I think that’s part of the way they’ve responded. I think there’s certainly some embarrassment there.
“I give our guys a lot of credit for saying, ‘Hey, this is what we control right now is what goes into these games. Now, we are where we are and hopefully we can go do it one more time.”
Texas did, despite a slow start that saw it go 0-for-8 from the field in the first five minutes against Lipscomb. But the Longhorns played well defensively and eventually found their offensive rhythm.
Texas closed on a 22-5 run over the last 6:42 of the first half, including scoring 14 unanswered to start it, to build a 41-27 lead by halftime.
The 27 first-half points by Lipscomb matched a season low. This a team that ranked seventh in the country in total offense, averaging 83.6 points a game.
The second half saw Texas pull away for a rout, going on a 10-0 run to open up a 22-point lead with 4:29 left.
“It’s great to see them so happy,” Smart said. “Our team has gone through a lot of twists and turns this year, and those guys were extremely disappointed with the way that we ended the regular season. So to see those guys so happy and excited and connected with each other, really throughout this whole tournament, it says a lot about them and a lot about their character.”
Smart faced plenty of criticism himself last month when the Longhorns stumbled down the regular season stretch.
The .500-record left Texas out of the Big Dance for the second time in Smart’s four seasons.
“That stretch late February, early March was so unbelievably disappointing,” Smart said. “Contrary to what people outside our program might think, we are exponentially more disappointed when we don’t win or something doesn’t go well then anyone else could be outside our program. And that goes for the players too. They don’t always show it the same way.
“When I played, after a loss I didn’t talk to anyone for two days, and it’s really hard for me as a coach early on to understand how could anyone just be literally smiling hours after a game. Everyone deals with it differently, and I do believe that stretch was really, really upsetting, disappointing to our guys.”
The regular season ended with double-digit losses to Texas Tech (70-51) and TCU (69-56), and then a 65-57 loss to Kansas in the conference tournament.
But Texas turned it around in the NIT. It might be the afterthought of March Madness, but it meant something to the Longhorns.
The Longhorns looked particularly good against Colorado, TCU and Lipscomb. The Buffaloes scored just 55 points, one of their worst offensive days, and the Frogs had similar struggles against the Longhorns defense.
TCU posted a season-low 44 points, the fewest points scored in the Jamie Dixon era. The Frogs shot just 28 percent, their lowest percentage since March 2014.
Then Lipscomb couldn’t figure out Texas’ defense in the championship game.
The NIT is not the championship anyone expected -- or wanted -- when Smart arrived on campus, but closing with a strong showing when things were falling apart last month is a positive sign.
“Man, our last several weeks of our regular season and conference tournament went much, much differently than we wanted it to go. I’ve tried to get these guys to accept the life lesson that that’s on us,” Smart said. “If all of us are sitting around a room, coaches and players, there is no one outside this room we can point any finger at our blame. We have to take ownership of it.
“As a young person, that’s really tough to internalize because our society or some of the things we’re taught is blame others for that or try to evade responsibility. For us to take the next step, and hopefully this stretch in the postseason is helping us with that, it’s about taking that ownership because that’s the key to being a consistently good team.”