There are a variety of explanations for Texas’ outstanding performance in tight games this season — maturity, experience, grit, belief. Whatever the reason, Texas has come in clutch in close game after close game.
On Saturday, it was redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones’s game-winning three-pointer with 1.8 seconds left and the brilliance of junior guard Courtney Ramey that would lift No. 4 Texas over No. 14 West Virginia, 72-70, in WVU Coliseum.
On this day three years ago, head coach Shaka Smart told his team Jones had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“I don’t know a lot of guys that would be able to do what he did, from the standpoint of scrapping and clawing his way back,” Smart said. “The one thing that is just so impressive about Andrew from the beginning is that after he was diagnosed, he kept saying, ‘I’m going to come back and play.’”
Three years after his initial diagnosis, Jones scored his 1,000th career point and hit the game-winning three for Texas. He is the 39th Longhorn to reach the thousand-point mark.
But the true MVP of the game for the Longhorns was Ramey.
Time and time again, the junior guard willed his way to the basket. Down the stretch, in Texas’ two most important possessions, it was Ramey’s penetration and playmaking that saved the Longhorns. Trailing by three with 1:28 left and needing a bucket, Ramey made a tough layup through contact, one of his many difficult finishes around the hoop to cap off a 19-point performance on 7-of-11 shooting, leading all scorers.
“Courtney Ramey does not have a losing bone in his body,” Smart said. “He is 100% winner.”
After West Virginia forward Emmitt Matthews Jr., an 89% free throw shooter coming into Saturday’s game, missed two consecutive free throws, Ramey took the ball down the court for the play of the game. He drove into the lane, attracting a host of Mountaineer defenders, before kicking it out to a wide-open Jones.
“My read once I got past my defender was the low man,” Ramey said. “If he didn’t step over, I had the layup, and he stepped over. I knew Andrew was in the corner, and I believe in him. I just had to put it on the money for him.”
The pass was perfectly placed. Jones’s shot rattled home. And Texas escaped Morgantown with a win after a poor shooting night.
The same Texas team that shot Kansas out of the gym last Saturday couldn’t make a three-pointer all game long, other than Jones’s 4-of-7 shooting performance from behind the arc.
The rest of the Longhorns were a combined 0-for-12 from three-point range. Senior center Jericho Sims only had two points and fouled out in just 17 minutes. Normally reliable Matt Coleman had his own issues with early foul trouble — Smart said Coleman was “a step off.”
But despite the off days, Texas found a way to win, just as they have all season long. Freshman forward Greg Brown collected 14 rebounds to once again lead the Longhorns on the glass. Sophomore forward Kai Jones stepped up when Sims was in foul trouble and sparked Texas’s 12-3 run to even things up in the middle of the second half after the Longhorns had fallen behind by nine points.
“This game was a good example of our team staying together and really responding to some circumstances that were not ideal,” Smart said. “We missed some shots that we normally feel good about making … it’s a good indication just of our guys hanging in there, staying together.”
Texas is 4–0 in Big 12 conference play for the first time in Smart’s tenure as head coach. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi put Texas as a 1-seed in early brackets for the NCAA tournament. Everything is trending in the right direction for these Longhorns. But, as they learned tonight, there are no days off in the gauntlet that is the Big 12.
Texas will face yet another ranked opponent in No. 18 Texas Tech on Jan. 13.
“It’s a fine line. We want our guys to feel good about winning,” Smart said. “But at the same time, in this league, you got to turn the page quickly because you got another really good opponent coming up.”