Jesperson’s prayer ends Longhorns’ hopes of long tournament run

Jacob Martella

OKLAHOMA CITY — Just like that, the Longhorns’ time in the NCAA tournament was over.

Junior guard Isaiah Taylor tied the game at 72 with 2.7 seconds left to play and with Northern Iowa declining to call its final timeout, all 15,279 fans in Chesapeake Energy Arena believed overtime would be needed to decided the first round contest.

With a second left, Panthers senior guard Paul Jesperson heaved up a prayer — and it was answered.

The Longhorns shuffled out of the arena, victims of a miracle shot in the tournament and losers in the first round for the second-straight year.

“It's March Madness,” Taylor said. “If it's going to happen, it's going to happen during this time of year. They made one more shot than us.”

The miracle buzzer shot upended a valiant comeback by the Longhorns.

Despite all the talk of a different team, the first twenty minutes of the game played out as a similar script to Texas’ loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament. The Longhorns opened with a 9-2 lead, but then slipped back into their struggling, sluggish self — and Northern Iowa was happy to take advantage of it.

The Panthers rattled off ten straight buckets interspersed with nine free throws. Guards Wes Washpun and Jeremy Morgan cut to the lane with ease, combining for 20 first half points.

The Longhorns, meanwhile, couldn’t muster a response. Only Taylor’s 16 points kept Northern Iowa’s lead from growing larger than 16 with over six minutes to play.

But then, for once, Texas responded.

Game after game down the stretch, the Longhorns found themselves in similar situations. Down 6-0 at home against Baylor. Down 15-0 to Kansas at home. Down again 19-9 against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament. Each time, the Longhorns wilted and walked off the court to blowout losses.

This time, however, they took the Panthers’ punch, got up and punched right back.

It started with an inauspicious last-second 3-pointer by senior guard Javan Felix to end the half and cut the deficit to eight. Then after the break, it grew. Shots began to fall for the Longhorns, who made four of their first five shots out of the break. Meanwhile, the Panthers went ice cold, making just one shot in the first 7:55 of the second half.

The resulted turned out to be a 22-3 run and a five-point lead with less than 12 minutes to play.

“I thought this was about as well as we've responded to getting down all year,” Smart said. “Our guys, the things they were saying in the timeouts and the look on their faces was one of resolve, and our guys did a good job battling back, cutting the lead to a manageable number at the half and really came out of the half executing all the stuff that we talked about doing.”

Even as Northern Iowa fought back to retake the lead, Texas took each blow and responded. After Washpun missed a free throw that would have given the Panthers a three-point lead, Taylor took the ensuing rebound coast-to-coast, laying up the tying shot with 2.7 seconds left — 2.7 seconds that would end Texas’ season.

Celebration turned to scramble defense. Senior forward Connor Lammert said they knew they didn’t want to foul Jesperson to send him to the free-throw line. But what space they gave him proved costly in the end.

Jesperson used the space to get off a clean shot. The ball banked off the glass and into the net. Northern Iowa players swarmed him and celebrated with the traveling fans. Texas just walked off the court, hands on heads, unsure of what had just transpired and with the scoreboard reading 75-72 in favor of Northern Iowa.

“If you could have that play back, you try to make it tougher on him,” Smart said. “But the kid made a shot from half court, so you've got to give him credit.”

For the seniors, who have been through a tumultuous four years of Texas basketball, the shot gave one final cruel punch in their last game in a Longhorn uniform. Felix and Lammert each fought to hold back tears during the postgame interviews, and the muted locker room seemed a distant cry from the boisterous team practices.

“It just hurts,” Felix said. “You immediately start thinking about all of the work you’ve put in. The countless hours. You just think about it ending like that and it’s hard. For it to end on a half-court shot, it just sucks.”

The loss sours what had been a strong first season for Smart in Austin. The Longhorns scored four wins over AP Top 10 teams, including the memorable Felix buzzer-beater against North Carolina and the 22-0 run against Oklahoma that sent the Erwin Center to a noise level never seen.

But this season will likely be remembered for how it ended. Texas lost six of its last 10 games. The Longhorns end their season in the same round as last year, and they haven’t advanced past the first weekend of the tournament since 2008. And now they’ll have to replace five scholarship seniors and potentially Taylor.

Smart, however, said he isn’t worried about replacing those players and maybe starting from the ground up again. Instead, he’s looking to what he has for next year.

“There’s no question the makeup of our team will be significantly different next year,” Smart said. “But that would have been the case if we would have rattled off six-straight wins.

“We just have to turn the page.”