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Golden: After sideline blowup, Horns must channel their fight toward Kansas

The Horns are 2-4 in their last six games

Texas guard Courtney Ramey looks on after he fouled out of Saturday's 82-80 loss to West Virginia. Ramey and teammate Andrew Jones had to be separated from one another in a heated exchange during the second half.
  • Texas lost 84-82 to West Virginia Saturday
  • The Horns are now 13-6 overall and 7-5 in conference play
  • Teammates Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones had a heated altercation in the second half
  • Ramey says the two have put the incident in the past

Texas fight.

Worse yet, Texas nearly fought.

The sideline altercation between Longhorns teammates Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones during Saturday's epic meltdown of a loss to West Virginia is being called a dustup, which is basically a brief loss of composure that doesn't lead to anything ugly.

Cooler heads prevailed, but Texas didn't. The Horns gave it all up late, losing 84-82 after leading by 19 points early in the second half.

“We put it in the past,” Ramey said of his tiff with Jones. The two have talked it out, but the team must now contend with the old familiar specter of late-season mediocrity that has typified Shaka Smart's Texas tenure. Those early warm fuzzies from winning the Maui Invitational have been replaced by questions regarding team chemistry and whether this 13-6 group — it’s 7-5 in the Big 12 — can overcome the COVID-19 blitz that coincided with this 2-4 slide.

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And while all of this is happening, red-hot Kansas comes calling Tuesday.

In case you missed it, Texas was on its way to running the Mountaineers out of the Erwin Center, but Bob Huggins' crew mounted a second-half rally. After Jones, never to be confused with a defensive stopper, was slow to rotate out to the corner to contest Sean McNeil’s successful 3-pointer that cut the lead to 64-50 with just over 16 minutes remaining, he received an earful from Ramey —  the unofficial sergeant at arms in the Texas locker room — as the two ran back for the next possession.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart calls out to his team during the second half of Saturday's loss to West Virginia. Smart is facing a tough challenge: After the Horns blew a 19-point second-half lead, he has to make sure his team is unified with red-hot Kansas — winners of five straight — coming to the Erwin Center on Tuesday.

It escalated minutes later during the TV timeout with senior leader Matt Coleman having to physically restrain Ramey from going after his teammate as words continued to be exchanged.

Not surprisingly, the team that emerged from the timeout played a disjointed brand of ball and never found its footing after being so dominant for the first 22 minutes. Up 14 at the time of the altercation, the Horns were outscored 32-16 the rest of the way.

Ramey hit a couple of big 3-pointers post-altercation, the latter giving Texas its last lead before he fouled out with 2:27 left.  Meanwhile, Jones struggled throughout and missed a 3-pointer on a clean look that would have pulled it out before Jericho Sims was short on a late tip attempt (he got fouled, but there was no call).  

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AJ1 is arguably the most clutch player on this roster but he went 1-for-10 with two turnovers after the fateful timeout.

When a team is struggling, the last thing it needs is for internal issues to ice up the road and make the path to a common goal more slippery than usual. Losing can turn a molehill into a mountain and Smart, a psychology major who's well versed in locker room culture, understands the important relationship between group connectivity and team success.

Smart, who knows his job security is largely dependent on how the Horns perform in the postseason, did not hesitate to place the altercation and the collapse in proper context.

“Absolutely, it had an effect on the game,” he said. “ Are these guys OK?  They’re not OK with what happened and they aren’t OK with losing. Am I OK with it? No.”

Texas guard Matt Coleman III, left, and forward Kai Jones celebrate a basket scored during Saturday's game.

Smart went on to say players have to be able to interact with one another and accept criticism in the heat of battle, and he’s right. Now, whether the Horns can put this behind them remains to be seen. The guess here is they will, but the bigger issue is if they can overcome everything that has has happened over the last month — from players missing valuable practice time to the recent weather struggles that pretty much eliminated practice time, to the omnipresent pressure to get it done in a must-win season for the head coach.

“If we’re going to win, we’re going to win together,” Smart said.

As Texas works its way to the middle of the pack just weeks after a No. 4 national ranking and growing talk of a high NCAA tourney seed, Smart and the team leaders had better find it from somewhere and fast. The Jayhawks have won five straight and haven’t forgotten that embarrassing 84-59 beatdown Texas laid on them at Allen Fieldhouse at the beginning of the year.

After that game, Coleman said the Horns would see Kansas again and that the Jayhawks wouldn’t soon forget what happened. Now we’re here with the Jayhawks on a real heater while Texas isn’t in the same confident space it occupied just a few weeks ago.

“It’s just about having confidence in each other no matter what has happened in the past,” Coleman said. “We just have to move forward. I guess life hits you in a lot of different ways.”

Yes it does, and this is the most unusual of seasons, but the Horns have the talent to turn this around. Question is, will they rediscover that unwavering belief that led to some really clutch moments earlier in the season or will they revert to what we’ve become accustomed to seeing, a group that plays just well enough to lose against quality competition?

Change can happen, but several issues must be addressed in a hurry:

• Smart has to be better with his in-game adjustments. He had no answers for Huggins’ matchup zone in the second half and left turnover-prone sophomore Kai Jones in the game for far too long. Jones appeared overwhelmed at times and his normally reliable hands turned buttery at crunch time. He must also make sure things are good behind closed doors between Jones and Ramey, who, along with Coleman, will ultimately determine how far this team goes.

• Sims played great, but didn’t get enough touches in the second half, especially when everyone but Ramey went cold from the perimeter. Good things happen when he gets the ball.

• Freshman Greg Brown played hard, but went scoreless and assist-less. He needs to be picked up by his veteran teammates who have to figure out how to get him engaged early.

• The reliable Coleman, whose jumper beat North Carolina at the buzzer to win the Maui Invitational, bricked the front end of a one-and-one that would’ve tied the game in the final seconds. Tough as it sounds, a senior point guard has to make that free throw at money time.

• Ramey, an alpha dog if ever there was one, played one of his best games with 28 points, but his fiery nature got the best of him at a time when the Horns needed poise in the huddle. It’s his job to lead, but he has to control his emotions.

A winter storm just blanketed our state, but the storm has been raging in Texas’ locker room for quite a while now. A win Tuesday will slow any talk of a late-season swoon, but a loss with a road game against No. 15 Texas Tech coming up on Saturday might sink this ship for good.

“It’s definitely a watershed moment for those guys to demonstrate what they’re about and that’s collectively and individually,” said Smart, who definitely includes himself in this upcoming gut check.

“Overall, this is the crossroads,” Ramey said. “We can go either one way or the other way. We’re a veteran team so we’re going to sit down, get better in practice and look to attack Kansas on Tuesday.”

It’s put-up time.