It may be premature and inexpedient to label Monday night’s climactic victory over Oklahoma as a turning point for Texas. It was just one game — but it was one that snapped a miserable five-game losing streak.
The Longhorns were desperate to stop the bleeding after a rough stretch that featured a brutal schedule of three straight top-10 opponents. Texas had to get a win.
“It was really big for our team,” head coach Shaka Smart said. “I guess from that standpoint you can say we needed it.”
Freshman guard Andrew Jones, who nailed the game-winning three, believes the win over Oklahoma could even be a sign of better things to come.
“I feel like it’s going to give us a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence,” Jones said.
While Jones will be remembered as the hero to Monday night’s thriller, it was the clinic that senior forward Shaquille Cleare displayed in the paint with his baby-hook shot that bolstered the Longhorns all night.
Cleare finished with a career-high 23 points, made 10 of 14 field goals and grabbed eight rebounds. Turn back the clock to a year ago and Cleare might not have been capable of producing such a performance.
“I don’t think last year he would’ve been able to play 31 minutes in an intense game like (Monday) night and be able to be so productive,” Smart said. “I think he would’ve gotten tired, but he didn’t look very tired (Monday) night.”
Cleare has come a long way this season, but he’s not the only one. Freshman forward Jarrett Allen has turned into a star and Jones is on the cusp of becoming one. Of course, the growing pains have been there quite often, as is the case with young teams. But Smart believes there’s been improvement and hopes that things can only continue to get better.
“You definitely can see a lot of progress when you look at individual guys,” Smart said. “We have to continue to be more consistent as a team. Now what we need to do is just put stretches of good play together and have more guys play well at the same time.”
Smart admitted at his Tuesday press conference that one of his primary focuses this season has been to be around his players as much as possible. Smart has often been regarded as a players’ coach, but with the youth on this year’s team, he feels a greater obligation to interact with his players.
“(I) spend more time with the guys than I ever have,” Smart said. “I’ve always tried to pride myself in spending time around the guys. I’ve tried to really encourage our staff to do the same thing.”
Saturday’s road matchup with Georgia represents an unusual twist in the schedule. The annual Big 12-SEC Challenge’s placement right in the middle of conference play gives both sides a break from its usual conference competition.
The Bulldogs (12–8, 4–4 SEC) head into Saturday fresh off back-to-back losses to Texas A&M and Alabama, who Texas beat at home back in December, 77-68.
The Longhorns will be put to the test by junior forward Yante Maten and senior guard J.J. Frazier. Maten averages 19.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, and Frazier averages 16.2 points and 4.3 assists.
“Georgia’s got a really good team,” Smart said. “It’s a unique opportunity to see our league against the SEC and the different matchups and see how teams do, so we’re excited about it.”
Texas tips off with Georgia in Athens on Saturday at 3 p.m.