Wins against a perennial basketball powerhouse like the Kansas Jayhawks are as rare as a photo of Shaka Smart with his jacket on.
In his five years as Texas’ head coach, Smart has only managed to dethrone the kings of the Big 12 once — nearly a year ago in a season that saw the Jayhawks fail to win the Big 12 for the first time since 2004. But a new season has brought new rosters, coaches and opportunities for both teams.
By the end of Saturday afternoon’s 66-57 loss to the sixth-ranked Jayhawks, Smart, jacket long since removed, was made painfully aware that this year’s Jayhawks aren’t the same team Texas faced in Austin a year ago.
“Our whole mentality going into the game is, this is a game you’ve got to seize, you’ve got to grab,” Smart said.
For 20 minutes, the Longhorns did exactly that by playing their most complete half of the season. They forced seven turnovers, shot 45% from the 3-point line and matched Kansas’ physical inside presence with an inspired effort of their own.
Defensively, Texas left little left to be desired, forcing five turnovers in a four-minute stretch midway through the first half and holding the Jayhawks scoreless for 6:37, taking a 31-26 lead into the second half.
“The formula for winning is playing that way for 40 minutes,” Smart said. “That’s a good half, but the way that we defended, if that lead is 10 or 12, that’s a big difference.”
Coming out of the halftime locker room, Texas looked as if its momentum from a dominant first half would carry over after junior forward Jericho Sims threw down a vicious lob dunk from sophomore guard Courtney Ramey on the team’s first possession.
But Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike had other ideas. The two combined for 23 of Kansas’ 40 second-half points, quickly taking over the game by sparking an explosive 10-2 run in just over four minutes.
With Azubuike heating up, the battle between him and Sims was on.
The two went at each other with little remorse. Each scored in double digits with a series of lob dunks, full-court fast break passes and Shaq-like post moves, earning Sims high praise from Kansas head coach Bill Self.
“I think Jericho is the best athlete in our league,” Self said. “Scoring over an athlete like that isn’t easy.”
But out of all of Sims’ highlights, his most crucial were his back-to-back crowd-pleasing dunks, the first of which tied the game at 54 with just under five minutes remaining.
Dotson, however, fresh out of his scoring drought from the first half, had different ideas. With just under three minutes to go and the Jayhawks clinging to a five point lead, the Big 12’s scoring leader found himself between the top of the key and the left wing, several feet behind the 3-point line, mismatched with Sims.
He sized Sims up, took a dribble and nailed his only three of the game, the dagger to put Kansas up eight and Texas away for good.
For Texas, the question remains how to close out close games, an answer Smart and his Longhorns are desperately looking for.
“It’s being your best in the last five or six minutes of the game, when the score is tied at 54 and nothing else really mattering. We weren’t able to do that today,” Smart said. “Winning teams go make plays. The best teams go make plays at the end of the game.”