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No. 24 Oklahoma 80, No. 5 Texas 79: Short-handed Horns almost pull one out of the fire

Three Longhorns, coach Shaka Smart unavailable against OU for COVID-19 protocols as Horns get first career double-double from Kai Jones

Texas Longhorns forward Royce Hamm Jr. (5) fights for the rebound against Oklahoma Sooners guard Alondes Williams (15) Oklahoma Sooners forward Jalen Hill (1) in the second half during an NCAA college basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021

The sports watching populace probably doesn’t fully grasp, much less fully appreciate, what these athletes are going through to deliver us a makeshift college basketball season.

Fifth-ranked Texas reminded everyone Tuesday night how resilient these 18- to 22-year-olds truly are.

The Longhorns hadn’t played an actual game since Jan. 16 due to COVID-19 postponements. Then, when No. 24 Oklahoma finally arrived in Austin, three Longhorns had to be held out because of COVID-19 protocols, and coach Shaka Smart was stuck at home after testing positive himself.

“It was definitely rust,” acting head coach K.T. Turner said. “We’ve had guys out left and right.”

If the pandemic doesn’t get you, bad officiating certainly will. The Horns and Sooners both had to tolerate an awful night from the adults in stripes, too, as OU escaped the Erwin Center with an 80-79 win.

Texas was without starters Courtney Ramey and Jericho Sims and rebounding-energizer Brock Cunningham. Leading up to the game, several players were in quarantine, like guard Matt Coleman III. The Horns were down to “five or six” players at practice, Turner said, and couldn’t even go five-on-five.

Still, UT’s Kai Jones had his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Andrew Jones also had 13 points and eight boards. Greg Brown had 14 points and felt OK afterward despite two nasty falls, Turner said. 

Oklahoma Sooners guard Elijah Harkless (24) battles for the loose ball on the floor with Texas Longhorns forward Kai Jones (22 in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021

“it’s been like, I’m not going to say the new normal, but it’s been the world that we live in and the circumstances we face every day,” Coleman said. “You’ve got to face adversity eye-to-eye, and you’ve got to find a way to battle up.”

Between the pandemic and the pandemonium, it’s rather amazing how Texas (11-3, 5-2 Big 12) almost pulled off a dramatic comeback. Down to five scholarship players at the end, Turner sent walk-on Blake Nevins to the baseline with 2.3 seconds left. 

“Blake was a big-time quarterback in high school,” Turner said of the Cypress Ranch product. “In practice, when we throw baseball passes, he’s the best one to throw ’em.”

Nevins’ last-gasp throw was intercepted, though. Not as easily as OU intercepted Sam Ehlinger’s final pass at the Cotton Bowl back in October, but still just as painful. 

The Sooners (10-4, 6-3) hit only seven 3-pointers but did all their damage at the free throw line. OU got 34 free throw attempts as Texas was called for an eye-popping 29 fouls. Coleman, Brown and Royce Hamm Jr. all fouled out. The Horns got only 19 free throw attempts on 20 OU fouls.

The refs were so engaged, they called 12 fouls before the first TV timeout of the second half. Then, they stopped calling fouls and let the players, you know, play.

OU caught fire after a slow start and led 43-34 at halftime. The Horns looked almost helpless as the Sooners got three chances at 3-point attempts on one possession in the second half. The third shot swished true as Alondes Williams gave OU a 61-52 lead with 11:15 remaining.

Andrew Jones hit four free throws and then scored on a scoop layup. Hamm hit a tough layup and then drilled a rare 3-pointer. Brown swished a 3-pointer from the left corner, and suddenly Texas was back within five.

If there ever was a time Texas needed a full house roaring its approval against the program’s No. 1 rival, this was it. Instead, the building was empty for the third straight home game because of COVID-19 protocols. There is still no indication when or if fans will be allowed back in this season.

With about three minutes left, Texas had its chance. Jase Febres missed an open 3-pointer from the right wing. Then, OU turned it over. On UT’s next possession, Kai Jones drove the lane and tried to score with a high shot off the glass. That missed, too.

Those two shots alone didn’t cause Texas to lose. And neither did Brown’s accidental tip-in off a missed OU free throw earlier in the second half. 

Watching from his house, Smart was likely going crazy over OU’s 13-0 run in the first half. Or the way Austin Reaves got loose for 23 points. Knowing Smart, he was likely disappointed with the perimeter defense. Reaves also had six rebounds and four assists.

“We communicated a lot through texts, phone calls, Zooms, FaceTime,” Turner said. Smart has been self-isolating and has not had direct contact coaches or players. Smart announced his COVID-19 positive diagnosis on Monday.

Texas Longhorns Assistant coach K.T. Turner coaches his team during a time out against Oklahoma Sooners in the second half during an NCAA college basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021

Asked whether Smart would be back on the sideline for Saturday’s game at Kentucky, Turner demurred and said the Horns were taking it “one day at a time right now.”

Turner wasn’t afraid to get after his charges. He lit into Kai Jones early in the game. “(Turner) was telling me, ‘You gotta pick it up,’” Kai Jones said. Asked if he agreed with that assessment, Jones said, “Absolutely.”

Coleman said he talks with Smart constantly, and it’s a good bet that other players are talking with Smart on the phone as well. But for now, on the sideline and in Cooley Pavilion, Turner’s voice commands the huddle. 

No matter who’s in or who’s out, who passed their recent COVID test or who didn’t, if they’re going to keep score, Texas would prefer to win.

Texas hasn’t even reached the halfway mark of conference play yet, so there’s a lot of basketball ahead. Crazy as it sounds, the Horns may have gotten just as much from a gritty short-handed loss than they would’ve from an easy win.

“It's different. You don't have your head coach. You’re missing some guys. It’s a different feeling,” Coleman said. “But we were excited to play. It’s a top-25 matchup, and you’re playing college basketball on national TV.”

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