Prior to Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State, Texas head coach Shaka Smart made himself, and his team, a promise. If he saw that his players weren’t in the right place on the court, he would take them out of the game.
“They need that reminder,” Smart said.
Within the game’s first three minutes, he fulfilled that vow and subbed in three players off his bench. Elijah Mitrou-Long was one of them.
The junior guard immediately brought the juice that Smart wanted by diving on the floor for loose balls and taking charges.
“My teammates always believe in me and trust in me when I come off the bench and getting that spark,” Mitrou-Long said. “I like diving for loose balls, taking charges. So, that’s what I did.”
Later, Smart pointed to one of his players at the end of the bench who hasn’t had his number called much this season — forward Royce Hamm Jr. Like Mitrou-Long, Hamm came on the floor and aggressively asserted himself into the game by challenging shots in the paint, fighting for rebounds and hyping up a sleepy Frank Erwin Center crowd.
After a lack of focus cost the Longhorns in their first matchup against the Cowboys in January, it was that infusion of energy from Mitrou-Long and Hamm that the Longhorns needed against the Cowboys in their 69-57 victory Saturday.
“Those guys gave us a really big lift in terms of energy, spirit,” Smart said. “We talked about going into the game that Oklahoma State only had six guys they really wanted to play. We wanted to take advantage of the fact that we had more depth.”
On the stat sheet, the duo off the bench looked like they barely made an impact. In his 24 minutes of play, Mitrou-Long only put together a six-point effort that included three assists. Hamm registered just 10 minutes in the game, scoring four points and grabbing three rebounds.
But their effort level provided a spark and an urgency that Texas needed.
Mitrou-Long’s savvy ball handling opened up the Texas offense and spread the floor. His defensive effort woke up a Longhorn defense that initially struggled to guard Oklahoma State on the perimeter.
And Hamm provided one of the game’s most noteworthy moments. After failing to get a foul call on his first drive to the basket, Hamm corralled his own rebound and muscled his way through a defender to finish a lay up with authority. The Texas crowd rose to its loudest volume of the entire afternoon.
Hamm’s teammate, forward Dylan Osetkowski, was especially fired up following the play.
“I give Royce so much credit for sticking in there,” Osetkowski said. “He knows in some games he might not play, some games he plays a little bit. Every day, he’s one of the hardest playing dudes in practice. To see him do what he does every day in a game and reap the rewards … it’s great. I love it.”
Saturday’s game marks another strong contribution from Texas’ bench in its latest games — a welcoming sign as the Longhorns move toward the NCAA tournament. Whether it’s Mitrou-Long or Hamm or players like forward Jericho Sims, Texas needs production from those outside the starting five.
According to Mitrou-Long, getting that production has been, and will be, the result of working hard and maintaining a certain focus in practice.
“Honestly, I feel like practice is harder than games.” Mitrou-Long said. “We’re going against a great team of starters. We can’t come into practice and just half-step. Coach (Shaka Smart) always holds us to a high standard, so when we get into a game and our number is called, we’re ready.”