WACO — The team that knocked off No. 15 Baylor on Monday night isn’t same group that went to China in November. It sure isn’t the same crew that went to the Bahamas.
It’s most certainly not the same unit that staggered into the new year.
Here in February, Texas has become a sharper, more refined basketball team, one capable of beating any Big 12 team anywhere on any given night. That much was evident in the 67-59 win at the Ferrell Center. The Longhorns (15-7) improved to 6-3 in Big 12 play and 4-2 against ranked opponents.
For a program that once had painful offensive sets, Texas had 21 assists on 21 made field goals. Ten Longhorns scored with Connor Lammert leading the way with 15 points. It’s a team that’s now won six of its last seven games.
“We’re just gelling right now, man,” center Shaq Cleare said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. Can’t get complacent. Just go to go to practice and get better.”
The Bears (17-5, 6-3 Big 12) had one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, too. But they shot 35.2 percent as Rico Gathers scored 20 points but fouled out with 1:27 remaining in a two-point game.
Gathers would’ve gotten more time had he not slammed Texas’ Prince Ibeh shortly after halftime. “Just a baby shove,” Ibeh said. Gathers started barking at guard Isaiah Taylor. The UT junior snapped back, and both players received technical fouls.
“Ricardo Gathers is as tough and mean as they come,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “We told our guys that we’ll have to be able to stand up to him.”
In previous years, that may have been enough to send things spiraling out of control. Last year, Texas was 3-11 against ranked teams and crumbled when the going got tough. Not this time, though. The Horns responded, prompting a chorus of “Texas Fight” chants to come raining down from the rafters.
Just as Baylor fans got cranked up, Lammert drilled a 3-pointer and shushed them all. Cleare found Taylor on a nifty baseline drive. Lammert hit another 3-pointer, giving Texas a 52-47 lead. Then, the Horns went right at Gathers, who was in foul trouble. Ibeh threw down back-to-back dunks.
“He flopped one time and I was like… awwww, c’mon buddy! C’mon, that’s a flop!,” Cleare said of Gathers.
Baylor had one last gasp. Gathers’ vicious jam over Ibeh and Taurean Prince’s free throw cut the deficit to two with 1:42 remaining. But Lammert swished an open 3-pointer from the right wing and Taylor and Javan Felix both hit free throws to close it out.
So what’s changed? Ibeh, who had nine points and five blocks playing in front of 15 NBA scouts, said the seniors realized their final season was headed down the tubes without a major overhaul. “We were headed to a dark place,” Ibeh said.
Lammert chalks it up to maturity. Outside of UT’s three freshmen, this is a veteran team that’s played a lot of basketball together.
“When (Taylor) he tells me to get up in the slot area for a quick shot, that’s not a play we drew up,” Lammert said. “It’s just years of playing together. He and the team has a lot of confidence in certain guys to take the shots.”
Strangely enough, Texas probably isn’t going to crack the Associated Press Top 25 anytime soon, mostly because of the team’s seven losses. That doesn’t seem to bother the Horns. This team simply wants to keep grinding.
“Whoever’s voting or not voting, that’s fine. We just come out and play,” Felix said. “You want to get better throughout the year. I think we strive to do that every day, and that’s been working out for us. We just have to make this a constant habit, a constant thing. We can’t stop.”