The Erwin Center will have a much different atmosphere Monday night compared to when the team’s seniors stepped into the arena for the first time four years ago.
When Demarcus Holland, Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, Danny Newsome, Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh arrived on campus, basketball was more of an afterthought, with sub-par crowds being the norm.
Now, as those seniors play at home for the final time, a likely fourth sellout crowd of the season will greet them with energy to hopefully see them end their home careers with an upset over Kansas.
“It’s been fun to be a part of for our last year,” Lammert said. “I’m really excited for where this program is headed.
It’s been a wild ride for the seniors during their time in Austin.
They opened their college careers by becoming the first Longhorn team in 14 years to miss the NCAA tournament. A year later, they surprised everyone with a midseason run to make the tournament.
But the momentum of that season failed to carry over to last year, when the Longhorns backed their way into the postseason and fell in the first round.
But head coach Shaka Smart has injected life into the program, both in the players themselves and the fan base.
Despite the loss of Ridley to a foot injury in late December, Smart has guided the team to the verge of a 20-win season and double-digit wins in Big 12 play. And the fans have noticed. The Longhorns’ attendance has jumped to an average of 12,596 this season, compared to 10,645 in the 2012–2013 season. Texas failed to draw any sellout crowds that year.
“This is a team that has gotten better, made progress, gotten some people’s attention,” Smart said. “We appreciate the fans for supporting us and bringing this kind of energy.”
All of that came to a head Saturday against No. 3 Oklahoma. Trailing by seven with seven minutes to play, the Longhorns went on a 22-0 run to take a 76-63 win. With each basket, the Erwin Center crowd roared to levels the players have never heard before.
“You always hope you come out playing in front of a packed house,” Felix said. “For this to be our second-to-last [home] game, everybody came out to support us, we’re just grateful.”
The Longhorns will try for a fifth top ten win of the season when the Jayhawks arrive on Monday; however, sending the seniors off with a win won’t come easy. Kansas clinched at least a share of their 12th straight Big 12 title on Saturday and has won 14 of the last 17 meetings between the two teams.
But riding high from the win over Oklahoma, Lammert said they welcome the challenge for their last game in the Erwin Center.
“You couldn’t really write it up any more special than this,” Lammert said. “Coming off of a win against a great Oklahoma team, a top ten team and then playing a top ten team at home, it’s special. It’s something we’ll always remember.”