With three starters out after a slew of injuries and an NCAA Tournament appearance likely out of reach, the Longhorns seemingly had little to play for on Wednesday night other than pride. Yet that pride proved to be a big enough motivator as Texas took care of business at home in a 70-56 victory over TCU.
The injuries to the trio of juniors — forward Jericho Sims along with guards Jase Febres and Matt Coleman III — meant that there would be inexperienced players playing substantial minutes. This opened the door for three freshmen to take the court at the same time, as freshman guard Donovan Williams as well as freshmen forwads Kai Jones and Will Baker played valuable minutes early in the contest.
“We’ve always been a talented group,” redshirt sophomore Andrew Jones said. “One through 15 everybody on the team is really talented. It’s just about next man up, staying confident, staying ready and stepping up to the big moment.”
Baker, who scored just 16 points all season prior to Wednesday’s matchup, drained two early 3-pointers along with a putback to help the Longhorns out to an early lead.
“It felt good to get those off,” Baker said. “I just stayed ready and kept working on my shot and my time came.”
Not to be completely outshined, Jones played a complementary role, grabbing rebounds and even scoring on a put back of one of Baker’s misses. He chipped in 10 points while also pulling down six rebounds in the contest.
Redshirt freshman forward Brock Cunningham also came off the bench to provide high quality defensive minutes. After sitting out last season and getting very little playing time thus far this season, his contribution was unexpected but welcome.
“A lot of the stuff I do doesn’t show up on the box score, but it’s something I pride myself in because it goes in the winning,” Cunningham said. “It helps the other guys be better when we’re on the court together.”
To be down by just two at halftime was a testament to the contributions made from players who usually remain on the end of the bench. Thanks to the youth on the roster, the team was able to remain competitive.
After about six minutes into a back-and-forth second half, the Longhorns were nursing a slim lead. Baker continued his accuracy from the three-point line, and Andrew Jones led the team in scoring with a career-high 21 points.
The entire performance was easily the most consistent of the season. Even without several starters or depth on the bench, the Longhorns found a way to stay competitive and generate offense, while staying fundamentally sound on defense. Texas closed out the game strong en route to its first victory in the last five games.
“Can you guys step forward and find a way to win?” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said. “It’s not about making excuses. It’s not about saying, ‘OK, this guy’s not on the floor or that guy.’ It’s about win anyway.”
While this season can largely be considered less than ideal for fans who expected to make the NCAA Tournament in the fifth year of Shaka Smart’s tenure, Wednesday was a glimmer of hope toward a future that is seemingly brighter than the present.