The Longhorns were at the pinnacle one week ago.
On Thanksgiving night in Las Vegas, Shaka Smart led his Longhorns to a statement upset over perennial national championship contender North Carolina. As a result of the monumental triumph, the Longhorns skyrocketed to No. 17 in the AP Poll — a new high in the Smart era.
Eight days later, a distraught Texas (5–2) squad limped into the locker room in pure shock. The Radford Highlanders (6–1) from the Big South Conference stormed into the Frank Erwin Center and edged the Longhorns in a 62-59 victory, likely making Texas’ stay in the rankings short-lived.
“The ranking doesn’t mean anything to be honest,” power forward Dylan Osetkowski said after the game. “We weren’t ranked when we went in and beat North Carolina. We weren’t satisfied with that ranking coming into today. Our entire schedule is teams that are capable of coming in and beating us, and it’s on us to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Radford star point guard Carlik Jones is no stranger to crunch time. The sophomore who drilled a game-winning three to win his conference last March delivered again. Jones slid under Kerwin Roach II’s outstretched arm and nailed a layup, complete with a foul to put the Highlanders ahead, 61-59.
“He’s just got toughness and belief in himself and his ability,” said Radford head coach Mike Jones, a former assistant under Smart at VCU. “At the end of the game, there’s no better time to have a guy like that on the floor.”
With an opportunity to escape from the deficit, Roach’s corner three rimmed out, permitting Radford to extend the lead, 62-59, on a free throw. Then, sharpshooting guard Jase Febres came up short on the final shot, initiating a jubilant on-court celebration by the Highlanders. On the other side of the court was brutal silence.
“I think we started the game with a great level of energy, attention to detail, but for whatever reason, just dropped,” Osetkowski said. “We’ve got to make a change. Give them credit, but we let that one slip away.”
As 62 seconds remained on the clock at the Erwin Center, Jericho Sims caught a lob from Roach, ferociously slammed it in for a go-ahead score. Although Texas seemed to have the momentum and created a defensive stop, the 1-point lead was relinquished on Jones’ layup 38 seconds later, resulting in the Longhorns’ second consecutive loss.
Despite holding a size advantage with the triumvirate of Osetkowski, Jaxson Hayes and Sims, the Longhorns couldn’t buy a bucket on the Highlanders. Texas’ two leading scorers on the season, Roach and Osetkowski, were held to 6-of-27 shooting, including 2-of-14 on three-point field goals.
But unlike most contests at the Erwin Center thus far, the Longhorns came out on fire offensively. Texas was able to build a 12-point lead in the early going, but it slipped as a metaphorical lid was placed on the rim in the middle of the first half. Entering halftime with a 1-point lead, things only worsened as the Longhorns failed to score a basket for a 6-minute stretch within the final 10 minutes.
“The stretch in the middle of the first half was huge in determining the outcome of this game,” Smart said. “We were up 12 halfway through the first half, and we really got away from the things that built that lead for us. We missed a lot of jumpers, but we need to do a way better job of getting in the paint. In the second half, they were the aggressors.”
The loss is Texas’ first non-conference defeat to a member of an NCAA Tournament one-bid conference since Dec. 27, 2016, when the team was stunned by Kent State. A defeat to Radford, which previously upset Notre Dame on the road, brings the Longhorns to a harsh reality after downing North Carolina.
“We’ve talked a lot about consistency,” Smart said. “I asked the guys coming out of the Vegas tournament, ‘Which team are we?’ because we had a stretch where we looked phenomenal for a lot of the North Carolina game. That’s something for us, we have to look squarely in the mirror, and do the things that create who we are.”