‘Kamaka-licious’: Junior forward Hepa provides depth off the bench amid COVID-19 uncertainty

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Photo Credit: Jack Myer | Daily Texan Staff

You won’t ever miss Kamaka Hepa’s energy from the Texas bench.

“You should see him at practice,” junior Courtney Ramey said. “Sometimes I tell him to shut up, like, ‘Come on, bro, please just settle down.’”

The junior forward hasn’t seen much time on the court this season, only playing nine minutes in the Longhorns’ first 12 games. Instead, he’s been a constant hype man from the bench.

But in the team’s thirteenth game against Kansas State, Hepa was thrown into action and inserted into the starting lineup after three forwards, freshman Greg Brown, sophomore Kai Jones and redshirt sophomore Brock Cunningham were ruled out just before tipoff due to COVID-19 protocols.

Hepa made the most of his first start of the season, scoring 15 points, matching a career-high, and doing it on a hot 5-of-8 shooting night from 3-point range. His play, according to Smart, was “Kamaka-licious.”

Since that Jan. 16 game, Texas has fallen victim to COVID-19-related schedule changes and absences. The team’s next two scheduled games were both postponed due to COVID-19 protocols with Iowa State and TCU. Then, head coach Shaka Smart tested positive for COVID-19, the team announced Monday.

Nothing is guaranteed for the No. 5 Longhorns, who are still scheduled to play their game Tuesday against No. 24 Oklahoma, whether there will be fans in the stands or if they’ll even play.

“The thing that's the biggest unknown is the twists and turns of this particular season because of all the changes and protocols and adjustments,” Smart said in a Jan. 9 teleconference. “The other night against Iowa State, who was the first game that we had played without any fans, … our guys looked around and were like, ‘Man, this is different.’”

 It’s still unknown whether Brown, Jones and Cunningham will be available against the Sooners — the team does not provide COVID availability updates. 

But amid the uncertainty, Hepa has stepped up to fill that gap at the forward position. If he can continue his hot shooting from behind the arc, the Barrow, Alaska product might begin to see more time on the floor even with the three forwards back.

Before the season started, Hepa was planning on redshirting. Then, the NCAA ruled the 2020-21 season would not count toward eligibility. So the junior forward stayed ready, making his presence known on the bench during games and practice.

“I think I do a good job of being able to stay connected (with the team), even if I might not play too much this season,” Hepa said in a postgame interview with Longhorn Network on Jan. 16. “That’s fine with me as long as I’m helping my team win in some form or fashion. That’s really all that matters to me.”

And even if the trio of forwards do return, Hepa’s progress this season will be crucial for the Longhorns next year. Both Jones and Brown are widely projected in the first round of the NBA draft, and Hepa is the next man up at the forward position.

Right now though, for these Longhorns, the focus is on the game against Oklahoma on Tuesday. The Sooners cracked the AP top 25 after beating No. 9 Kansas 75-68 on Saturday. Oklahoma has proven they’re able to play with the top Big 12 competition, also beating another top-10 ranked foe in then-No. 9 West Virginia earlier this year.

Assistant coach K.T. Turner will fill in as head coach during Smart’s absence — it’s all available hands on deck for the Longhorns against the Sooners.