Dylan Osetkowski walked up to Texas head coach Shaka Smart and gave him a long hug with a smile on his face. Kerwin Roach II went through each of his teammates and handed out high fives, laughing and celebrating with each of them along the way.
And when the clock expired, Gerald Liddell launched the basketball into the air in a state of euphoria.
As the final minutes ticked away inside Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, the entire Texas team couldn’t help but wear happiness on its sleeve — even if it wasn’t the NCAA title game.
After a long, twisting season which saw the Longhorns experience both the highs and lows of a college basketball season, Texas will get to walk away from the 2018-19 season with a victory after defeating Lipscomb 81-66 to clinch the NIT championship.
“This right here (is the biggest moment of my career),” Osetkowski told ESPN following his team-high 19-point performance. “You can feel some type of way, watching Selection Sunday and not getting picked. But we finished off strong, did what we wanted to do and I think we’re all happy we finished off as champions.”
While most fans saw the Longhorns’ entrance to the NIT as disappointment, Texas handled it with pride. Throughout practices and games leading up to Thursday, Smart had noted he’s been proud of the way his team approached the tournament.
And with the victory, this season’s group becomes the first Longhorn team to win a postseason tournament of any kind since 1995 when Texas won the Southwest Conference title.
“Our guys easily could have said, ‘We’re going to mail it in and it’s a tough season, we’re ready for it to be done,’” Smart told the Texas Longhorns Radio Network. “But they fought and battled and wanted to come to New York, and I’m so proud of what they’ve done.”
Texas started off slowly against the Bisons in the first half, but finished strongly in the final minutes. The Longhorns locked down on defense, led by guard Courtney Ramey, who shut down Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Garrison Mathews. Timely shooting and key free throws allowed Texas to close the opening half on a 22-5 run in the final six minutes and gave it a 41-29 lead heading into the break.
“They say defense win championships,” Roach told the Texas Longhorns IMG Radio Network. “So that’s what we do.”
Lipscomb closed the deficit in the second half, trailing by as little as seven early in the period. That’s when Smart called a timeout and emphasized an important message to his team.
“I said, ‘Guys keep attacking on offense,’” Smart said. “‘And on the defensive end, we have to get back to stops. We can’t let them have anything easy.’”
Texas responded, getting its rhythm back on defense and opening the floor on the offensive end. Roach, Jase Febres and Matt Coleman III provided key shots from behind the arc that pushed the lead to a comfortable margin that ended up being too much for the Bisons to overcome.
When it was all over, the Longhorns were able to wear t-shirts that said “champions” across the front. They were able to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden and lift a trophy.
This NIT championship may not mean much tonight to Texas fans, but Smart hopes it’ll push the Longhorns in a forward direction starting next season.
“That’s the first championship that we’ve won,” Smart said. “Yeah, it’s an NIT championship, and we would much rather be playing on Saturday in Minneapolis. But when we got in this tournament, the goal was: There are 32 teams, we want to be the last ones standing. I’m proud of the guys for doing what goes