If anyone inside Orleans Arena questioned who the best player on the court was Thursday night, Kerwin Roach II reminded them with under nine minutes remaining in the game.
With the Longhorns leading No. 7 North Carolina by six, the senior guard called for the ball as he crossed half court. He eyed his defender, quickly passed him by on a dribble to his right and took off for the rim.
And when the Tar Heels’ Cameron Johnson skied to reject his attempt, Roach simply brushed him aside and added him to his ever growing highlight reel of posterizing dunks instead.
It was the high point during an evening where the Tar Heels simply couldn’t find an answer for him. Roach collected a career-high 32 points, six rebounds and seven assists to guide the Longhorns to a thrilling 92-89 victory against the Tar Heels at the Las Vegas Invitational.
“I always wanted to become this type of player since I was in high school,” Roach told Fox Sports after the game. “It’s my dream … and I’m just happy. I couldn’t do it without my teammates and my coaching staff.”
Roach’s 12-of-15 effort from the field was part of the Longhorns’ most efficient offensive showing of the season, as the Longhorns shot a season-high 52.5 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from behind the three point line.
Guard Matt Coleman contributed 16 points to the win, while freshman forward Jaxson Hayes provided 15 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
In particular, Hayes’ effort saved Texas on the offensive and defensive glass when its other bigs struggled to corral rebounds against North Carolina’s forwards.
“I was really just playing my role and doing everything I could do to help our team win,” Hayes said. “And, I mean, it helped us to victory.”
The Longhorns’ winning effort, however, did not come easy, requiring a comeback effort after a slow start. A series of missed shots on the offensive end and an offensive bonanza by North Carolina sparked by guard Coby White allowed the Tar Heels to open up a 17-4 lead through the first five minutes.
But the Longhorns responded with a run of their own. Texas found some rhythm from behind the three-point arc thanks to Coleman and Roach attacking the North Carolina defense. That allowed the Longhorns to go on a 17-6 run that cut the lead to two.
After North Carolina responded with a run to increase its lead, Texas fought back once again. Eight points from Roach and a corner three from forward Dylan Osetkowski as time expired gave the Longhorns a one-point lead as both teams entered the break.
“I think early in the year, especially with teams that are getting to know each other, sometimes they’re better in practice than they are in games,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “No one’s going to change that but you. I think our guys did a good job of stepping up and playing Texas basketball.”
The Longhorns picked up right where they left off in the second half, hitting five of their first six attempts from behind the arc. The Longhorns found easy buckets, and Roach’s dominance on offense allowed them to open a lead as wide as 11.
With seven minutes to play, the Tar Heels once again responded with White leading the charge. The freshman guard collected 10 of his 33 points in the span of three and a half minutes to shrink the Longhorns’ lead to 87-85 with 2:14 to play.
But Texas collected enough free throws down the stretch to clinch the win.
While the Longhorns entered the tournament as the only unranked team in the four-team field, Texas’ victory will likely lead to recognition — something that won’t go unnoticed by a team looking to prove itself to the rest of the college basketball landscape.
“You’ve got to make them believe,” Roach said. “That’s something we always preach. We got a chip on our shoulder, our entire team including me. So that’s all we got to do: Come in, make them believe and play with a chip on our shoulder.”