Texas Longhorns' head coach Shaka Smart during a game against TCU in Austin on Wednesday, February 19, 2020. [LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Hot-shooting Baker provides bee-line for Texas victory

Posted February 19th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Shaka Smart was randomly quoting John Beilein out of the blue in his post-game press conference. Yeah that John Beilein, the fired Cleveland Cavaliers coach who could be courted by Texas as a potential candidate if there’s a coaching change.
  • “It was a win we definitely needed,” said Texas guard Andrew Jones, who scored 21 points. “A momentum-builder. We’re trying to make the rest of the season as good as we can be.”
  • While some have been wondering if this team has quit on its coach, that sure wasn’t evident on Wednesday when the Longhorns played with heart and hustle. And half-strength.

The announced attendance of 8,395 fans at the Erwin Center — dare say maybe a thousand or so dotted the stands in the early moments of the game before the crowd grew to maybe half of the charitable, disclosed figure — were treated to all sorts of weird on Wednesday night.

Here’s what you missed in the twilight zone if you weren’t there, and most of you weren’t:

  • The Will Baker who couldn’t hit the side of a barn or any other part of the barn all season long suddenly couldn’t miss and looked unstoppable.
  • A short-handed Longhorns team missing three starters to injury showed so much depth that its bench put up almost half its entire total with a whopping 30 points.
  • And Shaka Smart was randomly quoting John Beilein out of the blue in his post-game press conference. Yeah that John Beilein, the fired Cleveland Cavaliers coach who could be courted by Texas as a potential candidate if there’s a coaching change.

The Texas basketball coach has lost almost everything this troubling season — close games, many games, road games, a bunch of players and, ultimately, perhaps his job — but apparently not his gallows sense of humor. That was intact. So when he was being peppered with questions about the emergence of Baker as a scoring threat after his career-high 20-point performance, he dredged up a “famous John Beilein phrase, a shooting five man changes the world.”

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Baker certainly changed Smart’s world, at least momentarily, by filling in the scoring void in the absence of injured starters Jericho Sims, Matt Coleman III and Jase Febres and filling the basket with four treys to help hold off TCU.  The unexpected, coming-out party by the 6-11 freshman — who had entered this 26th game of the season with a single successful trey in 25 attempts — also halted a distressing, four-game losing streak that threatened to engulf Smart and maybe ensure his dismissal at season’s end.

Smart’s quote sure seemed to acknowledge his precarious position although he never cracked a smile or let on he might be pulling legs. He did get a big hug from athletic director Chris Del Conte after the presser as the two walked out.

“It was a win we definitely needed,” said UT guard Andrew Jones, who scored 21 points. “A momentum-builder. We’re trying to make the rest of the season as good as we can be.”

If nothing else, Texas’ 70-56 win gave it a bit of optimism and a sweep of the Fort Worth rival for a three-game win streak over the Horned Frogs, dating to last season’s win over Jamie Dixon’s bunch in the NIT semifinals. You know, that other tournament. Clearly, Smart needs to schedule more games with TCU.

Maybe they’ll meet again in the Big 12 tournament. They are tied for sixth in the league with five more games remaining for each.

So was it a sense of relief?

“I don’t think it was relief,” Smart said. “We challenged our guys, ‘Can you guys step forward and find a way to win? It’s not about making excuses. My wife has always had that mantra. We found a plan, stuck together and found a way to win.”

While some have been wondering if this team has quit on its coach, that sure wasn’t evident on Wednesday. The Longhorns played with heart and hustle. And half-strength.

But was it a mirage or momentum?

Expectations remain terribly low for a 15-11 team that not only looks destined to miss the NCAA Tournament but can’t even get close enough to be on the bubble. Even though the prospects are bleak for major improvement, with three of its last five games against top-five Big 12 teams West Virginia here on Monday and at Texas Tech and Oklahoma, Texas can still go down swinging.

“Courtney (Ramey) really led tonight,” Smart said of his sophomore guard. “That’s what we needed. He really hung in there and led the team.”

Ramey has turned for the better of late in handling the ball and shooting, putting in 15 points with five assists and zero turnovers. He and Mr. Floor Burn Brock Cunningham did a tandem defensive number of TCU top threat Desmond Bane. Jones has plenty left in the tank after his 21-point game. And, who knows, maybe Wednesday night’s Baker sighting turns into something even more regularly visible.

Or maybe it’s too late for any type of serious charge. This was probably just a temporary reprieve from the misery of a season gone bad, but sports can be unpredictable.

Texas knows it has to win out or least four of its last five for any chance of a NCAA at-large bid, or go unscathed through the conference tournament in Kansas City as totally improbable as that sounds with Sims gone and little signs of consistent progress.

With no seniors on the roster and everyone coming back, this is a team that is hardly devoid of talent or athleticism. And that could be promising for Smart or whoever might be coaching this club. Heck, maybe Shaka’s scouring the Internet for inspiring Chris Beard philosophy for motivation for the next game.

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