Here recently, Texas’ opening game plan has been simple and direct. The Longhorns want to force-feed center Prince Ibeh for an easy bucket or two inside.
Saturday was a time to change things up.
“The coach asked me right before the game if I wanted a 3,” guard Javan Felix said. “That was all I needed.”
Felix used Ibeh for a screen on Texas’ first possession against Texas Tech and drained a 3-pointer. On the second, the senior did a stop-and-pop move in the lane for another bucket. On the third, Felix swished another 3-pointer.
Those three quick shots were emblematic of the day as the Longhorns’ guards orchestrated a 69-59 win over the Red Raiders at the Erwin Center. Isaiah Taylor had 13 points and eight assists, and Kerwin Roach scored 12 as Texas extended its winning streak to four games.
Texas (16-7) remained one game back in the Big 12 race with a 7-3 league record, pending the outcome of the Baylor-West Virginia game Saturday night. A team that has now won seven of its past eight games will head to Norman, Okla., for a Monday showdown with Oklahoma, which is ranked No. 1 but was upset Saturday by Kansas State.
Asked if players would be excited, Texas coach Shaka Smart said, “If you’re not, then you’ve got a problem. Playing the No. 1 team in the country on their home floor, that’s a great opportunity. It’s also a great challenge. I would hope our guys would be really excited. I’m excited.”
Texas has an 0-8 all-time record against No. 1 teams, though the Sooners will probably fall out of the top spot when the Associated Press poll is updated midday Monday. UT hasn’t won at Lloyd Noble Center since 2012.
“Regardless of what kind of number they have by their name, we’re just going to come out every game and compete,” Taylor said. “They’re a good team; we’re a good team, too. Going up to OU is a dogfight. We’re just looking to compete for 40 minutes.”
From Texas’ mental standpoint, it’s the perfect time for a showdown against the program’s archrival. The Horns are at a different place now from when they lost to the Red Raiders in early January. Texas wasn’t really clicking on all cylinders and still won with ease.
Felix’s three buckets gave Texas an 8-3 lead, but Tech took a 20-17 advantage when Keenan Evans drove down Broadway for an easy layup.
It was a one-possession game with 12:46 remaining. Then, Felix scored and sparked a 7-0 run, giving the Horns some breathing room. Demarcus Holland’s breakaway jam gave Texas a 50-41 lead. The Raiders chipped away, but Taylor found Roach for a layup and UT led by 10.
Those two tried it again minutes later, and Roach threw down an alley-oop slam the second time around. Connor Lammert (seven points) followed that with a 3-pointer, and it was essentially over.
“It’s a sign of growth that our guys were able to pick the intensity up when they needed to and understood what goes into winning,” Smart said.
Texas won without a single point, with only a single shot and with just one rebound from Ibeh, who was plagued by foul trouble and played only 13 minutes. Shaq Cleare had four points and four rebounds in 19 minutes.
Smart didn’t seem worried about Ibeh’s final stat line. “He’s playing terrific. He’s having a huge impact on our team, and that will continue,” the coach said.
Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team Texas hasn’t played yet. If the Horns win on “Big Monday,” they’ll become the league’s front-runners. At that point, crazy as it sounds, a Big 12 title will be up for discussion.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the country,” Felix said. “That’s not something that you overlook.”