Texas learned its postseason fate Sunday evening, earning a bid in the National Invitation Tournament opposed to a desired spot in March Madness. Despite a homecoming to familiar stomping grounds, Texas basketball was no longer the hottest ticket in town. A quieter, emptier Frank Erwin Center atmosphere shrouded the Longhorns — but the Longhorns were there to make a statement.
Led by senior power forward Dylan Osetkowski in what could have been his final collegiate game, a determined 2-seeded Texas (17—16) slid past 7-seeded South Dakota State (24—9) in a 79-73 final in Austin.
“As college basketball players and coaches, you live for this time of year,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said. “When our name wasn’t called, fortunately we got the opportunity to play the NIT. I didn’t want the season to end, and I thought our guys played like that tonight.”
All of the Longhorns’ frustrations from an NCAA Tournament snub were exerted in the games’ opening minutes. The two seniors, Osetkowski and shooting guard Kerwin Roach II, immediately tested their range beyond the NIT’s extended 3-point line, and it paid off. In a redemption of Senior Night, Osetkowski and Roach combined for 14 of Texas’ first 19 points. The team simply couldn’t miss, and Texas opened the game leading 19-0, hitting each of its first five threes.
“We came out ready. We came out prepared. We wanted to win,” Roach said. “(Dylan) was on fire. He made that turnaround fadeaway in the first half. I was like ‘Oh yeah, he’s hot.’ He made a stare-down three with a dude up in his face, and I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s your game. Keep going at it.’”
The early long-range success influenced Texas to continue pursuing the 3-ball. The shots began to rim out, and this cracked the door open for the Jackrabbits to come back. With power forward Mike Daum — a top-10 scorer in NCAA Division I history — driving the bus, South Dakota State slowly chipped away at the Longhorns’ sizable margin. A 13-0 run suddenly closed the gap to three points. But in Texas’ “live by the three, die by the three” style of play, life was restored with three consecutive triples to finish the half up 43-35.
Texas reestablished a double-digit lead shortly after the arrival of the second half. But once again, when the shots stopped sinking, Daum spearheaded a run for his Jackrabbits. With the end of his college career on the line, he scored six of eight points on an 8-0 run, and South Dakota State jumped ahead, 67-64, with 8:13 remaining.
“We knew they’re a good team. They have a 3,000-point scorer, and they have a good point guard who can shoot the ball,” shooting guard Courtney Ramey said. “When they took that lead, there was no doubt in my mind that we could overcome it. We had to get more stops and be more aggressive on offense.”
When the adversity arrived, Texas needed the senior leadership and confidence that anchored the team in the opening minutes. Enter Dylan Osetkowski. The power forward recorded two vital steals in the backcourt, turning each one into Texas fastbreak points. He then bolstered the Longhorns’ offense with a dunk and post hook to respond to the Jackrabbits’ baskets. Osetkowski finished with a career-best 26 points, just one game after setting his season high in the Big 12 Tournament.
“Early on, I just came in with an aggressive mindset,” Osetkowski said. “I just wanted to make my mark on the game.”
The victory ensures the Longhorns will finish the 2018-19 season at .500 or better. Texas earns another opportunity to showcase its skills at the Frank Erwin Center and will host the winner of Wednesday night’s battle between 3-seed Xavier and 6-seed Toledo.