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No. 4 Texas 82, Kansas State 67: Kamaka Hepa, Jase Febres fill in for undermanned Horns in blowout

Smart said Greg Brown, Kai Jones, Brock Cunningham ‘will not be going’ to Iowa State on Wednesday, if game is played at all

Kansas State's Antonio Gordon battles for a loose ball with Texas' Donovan Williams and Royce Hamm Jr. in the first half of the Longhorns' victory Saturday night at the Erwin Center.

You knew something was amiss Saturday night when Texas forward Kamaka Hepa showed up in the starting lineup. Um, where were Greg Brown, Kai Jones and Brock Cunningham?

Turns out, three key Longhorns were sidelined because of COVID-19 protocols. No matter. In the end, Texas coach Shaka Smart had the apt description of what happened against Kansas State.

Texas’ 82-67 win over the Wildcats was “Kamaka-licious!”

The fourth-ranked Longhorns (11-2, 5-1 Big 12) bounced back from a disappointing midweek loss as Hepa sank a career-high five 3-pointers and finished with 15 points, three rebounds and a block.

His new look — a chopped-off haircut and white headband — “makes me a little bit more aerodynamic, so I’m able to run out there a little bit faster,” Hepa said, and he ran wild against the Wildcats (5-9, 1-5).

Hepa has an interesting backstory. The 6-foot-9 junior from Alaska planned to redshirt this season, figuring there’d be scant playing time with all of UT's returning veterans. But after the NCAA froze everyone’s eligibility because of the pandemic, Hepa figured he’d start playing.

Still, he had been on the floor for only nine minutes in three games going into Saturday night. Two other Texas reserves transferred; Hepa stuck it out.

So there he was, listed in the starting lineup against K-State. Hepa heard his name echo through an empty Erwin Center in pregame introductions. Then he went to work, helping Texas break open a tie game with a full-court press and a 20-2 first-half run.

Texas forward Kamaka Hepa scores against Kansas State on Saturday night. Hepa joined the starting lineup and contributed 15 points, three rebounds and a block.

“Obviously, I was a little bit more excited about tonight, just because I was able to be out there with my teammates on the court,” an amped-up Hepa said. “Just because of my situation and our team situation this year, I don't necessarily get to do that too much. 

“But I enjoy every second of my team, and I enjoy embodying my role,” Hepa added, “and it felt really good to just be out there with my teammates playing basketball.”

It was obvious that Smart felt good about it, too. The coach wears a mask on the postgame Zoom calls, but he was smiling with his eyes.

“This guy is going to be highly successful in life,” Smart said. “When he gets done playing basketball, I’ve told him he’s probably going to be all of our boss someday in whatever it is that he wants to do. He gives off an incredible energy and has this spirit about him that is infectious and very, very positive.”

Smart has always loved Hepa’s energy. Sometimes, the Longhorns’ hype man gets too hype. Take Wednesday’s game against Texas Tech as Example A. After Cunningham was called for a rather bogus foul, the UT bench went crazy. Hepa went sprinting around as if it were a bad call at Rucker Park. The upstaged official doled out an instant technical foul.

“Man, you’ve seen him on the bench. He’s the most engaged and excited guy there is,” Smart said. “But he can play.”

So can Jase Febres. Fans haven’t seen much of Hepa this season, but they haven’t seen anything from the 6-foot-5 Febres. While the rest of the Texas sporting world was watching the Westlake-Southlake Carroll state championship game, Febres was quietly making his season debut.

The Horns’ sharpshooter had not played since Feb. 8, 2020. He underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee and spent the early pandemic months simply trying to get through rehabilitation. 

Febres had been going through some pregame warmups lately, but Smart said the guard wouldn’t play until he felt totally comfortable. For athletes, getting over that last mental hurdle is probably the toughest part of any recovery. 

If Saturday was any indication, Febres is feeling great.

He entered the game about four minutes in and looked impressive with a chase-down block. He drilled a 3-pointer, the 173rd of his career, with 8 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in the first half. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, Febres had another block from behind on which he came out talking some smack. 

Febres finished with six points, five rebounds, three assists and those two blocks in 22 minutes. 

Andrew Jones pumped in a team-high 19 points by hitting four 3-pointers. Courtney Ramey scored 14, Jericho Sims put in 14 more, and Texas was in cruise control the entire second half.

Jericho Sims swats away a pass by Kansas State's Rudi Williams. Sims scored 14 points in Texas' victory.

It was so freewheeling that Ramey even threw a lob pass to Sims off the backboard for a slam dunk in the second half. 

Texas shot 52.3% overall and only turned it over 10 times. Kansas State simply couldn’t match the offense or pace. Midway through the first half, it was clear the Horns would be OK without their missing pieces.

“We knew with those three guys out, we were going to need major contributions from some guys that hadn't played as much,” Smart said.

Thanks to those contributions, the Horns have a good feeling about things after a big home win.

“I think that our preparation, these past couple of days after the (Texas Tech) loss, was really good, really high intensity and a lot of communication,” Smart said. “And I think that it helped spark what we were able to achieve tonight.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.

UT-Iowa State called off

Wednesday's Texas-Iowa State men's basketball game in Ames, Iowa, has been postponed. The Cyclones have paused team activities because of Big 12 COVID-19 protocols. The game will be rescheduled at a later date.