Smart reaches coaching milestone as Texas edges VCU on the road

Dalton Phillips

Six years ago, Texas head coach Shaka Smart led VCU to its first-ever Final Four appearance. On Tuesday night, Smart notched another milestone in the place where his coaching career took off. With a 71-67 victory, Smart earned his 200th career coaching win in familiar territory, bringing his Longhorns to 6–2.

Smart’s return was almost spoiled as the Longhorns watched a 19-point second-half lead evaporate. But a late rally from the Texas frontcourt helped the team escape by a four-point margin in its first true road matchup of the season at the Siegel Center in Richmond, Virginia — Texas’ first road victory since March 2016.

“This is a hostile environment,” Smart said. “This is a tough place to play. There is a reason that they’ve won between 85 and 90 percent of their home games since this place was built.”

Junior power forward Dylan Osetkowski was the hero for the orange and white down the stretch, earning 17 points and seven rebounds, including a huge 3-pointer in crunch time. 

After Smart berated his players for a lethargic effort last week against Florida A&M, Texas looked to rebound with a dominant performance. Early in the contest, it looked like the Longhorns would do just that. 

Near the start of the first half, freshman center Mo Bamba caught a pass at the logo with an open court in front of him. Two dribbles later, he sailed high above the rim for a commanding flush, pushing Texas’ early lead to 11 and prompting a VCU timeout.

The Longhorns continued to keep VCU out of the game coming out of halftime, quickly extending the lead to 19 with 12 minutes to play. The roar of the home crowd was reduced to a murmur as the game seemed all but decided.

But the Rams responded as they often do at home, leading a furious 22-5 rally to cut the lead to two points with just under five minutes remaining. 

With the momentum firmly in VCU’s favor, Texas’ junior shooting guard Kerwin Roach missed a pair of free throws, allowing the Rams to take their first lead of the game, 63-62, on a 3-pointer with 3:52 on the clock. Moments later, sophomore guard Andrew Jones continued his struggles from the line by missing two foul shots.

Despite the struggles from the charity stripe, it would be the Texas frontcourt who revived the team in crunch time. Bamba connected on two free throws to reclaim the lead, and on the ensuing play, Osetkowski knocked down a corner three to make it a two-possession game. 

“(Bamba’s) free throws were as big as anything,” Smart said. “Because at that point, we had missed five out of six free throws. We were really struggling. Our guys were really out of sorts. That calmed us down, and gave us the one-point lead that we were able to hang on to.”

Texas escaped a free-throw shootout to close out the contest, leaving the Longhorns with a happy flight home before they prepare for a home matchup with Michigan on Dec. 12. But despite the win, Smart seemed concerned with another lead squandered by his young roster.

“Regardless of how the end of this game went, we have plenty of things to work on and improve on,” Smart said. “It certainly feels good going into this week coming off of a win, but we really need to have a sense of urgency right now to improve in some areas because this is the time of year where you can really make a big jump.”