It felt like it could all slip away. The 11-point lead, the win against the No. 11 team in the country, Shaka Smart’s first ever victory against Big 12 tyrant Kansas. All of it.
Four points separated Texas and Kansas with just under two minutes remaining, and perhaps the smart bet was on the Jayhawks pulling through.
But then guard Matt Coleman escaped past a Kansas defender, toed the half-court line and found guard Jase Febres in the corner for his third consecutive three. The Texas guards broke a Kansas press to find center Jaxson Hayes for an easy dunk at the other end of the floor. And when guard Kerwin Roach II was at the free throw line, he converted.
When matters became too close for comfort, the Longhorns pulled away like they had done all night, securing a 73-63 upset victory over the Jayhawks on Tuesday night.
“We talked about before the game in a players-only meeting, we knew what we had to do,” forward Dylan Osetkowski said. “Coach always talks about being the aggressor, being the team that does more of what goes into winning. I think we did that tonight.”
After giving up a season-high 98 points against Georgia on Saturday, the Longhorns’ winning effort was rooted in a defensive identity that limited the Big 12’s second-best offense to just 63 points, 14 points below its season average.
It was a defensive presence felt from the opening tip. Texas focused its efforts on preventing Kansas’ big men, including star forward Dedric Lawson, from establishing an inside presence in the early going and was able to prevent the Kansas guards from getting substantial penetration off the dribble.
As a result, the Longhorns held Kansas to just 23 points and forced eight turnovers in the first period to take a 32-26 lead into the break.
In the second half, the Longhorns relied on Osetkowski and Hayes. While Hayes secured the paint for the Longhorns on the defensive end and corralled a team-high five rebounds in the period, the Texas offense consistently found ways to put the ball in Osetkowski’s hands.
Osetkowski responded with exceptional post moves on the low block and converting free throws at the line when he was fouled making a move to the bucket. When the night concluded, the duo had combined for 29 points and 13 rebounds.
“I thought Jaxson did a really good job, he blocked a couple of guards’ shots and bothered Dedric (Lawson) all night with his length,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “Osetkowski was really good tonight. He took shots that were there, rebounded and played to his size.”
But despite its efforts, Kansas was able to close the gap on several occasions throughout the half. The Jayhawks shrunk the Longhorns’ lead to five points or fewer on nine different occasions.
Texas, however, responded each time.
Febres hit three critical 3-point shots. Osetkowski, Hayes and Roach made their free throws when they got to the line. And when Texas needed to force stops, it got them on possessions in the final minute.
It was the type of result Texas needed at a crossroad in its season. As Shaka Smart’s team moves into the crux of its conference schedule, he wants to see his players take advantage of the opportunity in front of them.
“I think there are guys on our team who realize there aren’t a ton of opportunities for them left in college basketball, so they need to take advantage,” Smart said. “But you don’t win it with a couple guys. It has to be every guy out there.”