Prince Ibeh left the Erwin Center court to a standing ovation on Tuesday night; his double-double performance earned him the well-deserved honor.
It was a long time coming for the senior center.
Ibeh sat behind fellow senior center Cameron Ridley for most of his Texas career. He started just six games in his first three seasons, averaging 2.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. Even in the first ten games of this season, Ibeh played no more than 14 minutes in a game and averaged 1.2 points and three rebounds.
But that changed on Dec. 27.
Ridley went down with a fractured left foot in practice, sidelining him indefinitely. Suddenly, Ibeh found himself in the starting lineup.
“[Head coach Shaka Smart] told me that there’s no other guy in [the] country perfect for stepping up than me,” Ibeh said.
But, Ibeh and the Longhorns struggled through the first four games without Ridley.
Ridley averaged 12.7 points and 10 rebounds a game for the Longhorns through 11 games. Ibeh and junior forward Shaquille Cleare — the other half of the “big man rotation” — averaged just nine points and 11 rebounds in the first four games without him, going 1-3 in the process.
But it was more than the statistics that changed when Ridley went down. Texas found success early in the season with an “inside-out” approach on offense. But without Ridley, the Longhorns’ focus turned away from the post and more toward outside shooting.
“There was a game earlier in the year where [Ibeh] kind of said half-jokingly, ‘We keep throwing it into Cam, but what about me?’” head coach Shaka Smart said. “I learned a lesson there.”
Ibeh kept working through it. After not getting many minutes early in his career, he said every minute on the court helped him find his place on the floor and gain confidence.
“Now I am out there no matter what,” Ibeh said. “I’m depended on. I’m just getting more and more comfortable.”
In his last five games, Ibeh is averaging 6.4 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, but he’s also made an impact on the defensive end. He swatted away seven shots at Kansas on Saturday and followed it up with five blocks against TCU.
Ibeh said defense is the best part of his game.
“My presence changes the game,” Ibeh said. “Opposing teams know I’m out there.”
The TCU game Tuesday was his breakout moment.
Ibeh posted a career-high 17 points along with 10 rebounds — his second career double-double. But the most surprising part of his game came at the free-throw line. A career 39 percent free-throw shooter, he shot 5-of-6 from the line, each made shot garnering as loud of a cheer as one of his thunderous dunks.
“We know that Prince has always had the potential to do what he wants,” junior guard Isaiah Taylor said. “I think that he’s starting to show that now.”
But with Vanderbilt coming to Austin on Saturday and over half of the Big 12 season remaining, Ibeh said he still has to work on “everything” to get the Longhorns into the postseason.
“The biggest thing for me is just not feeling settled and complacent and to keep working,” Ibeh said.