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No. 13 Texas 70, TCU 55: Healthy and back to winning, Longhorns starting to feel good again

Smart: ‘Our team spirit was better than it’s been for quite a while.’

Texas guard Andrew Jones drives to the basket past TCU's RJ Nembhard during the second half of the Longhorns' 70-55 win Saturday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued this note for those recovering from COVID-19 or those who have been vaccinated:

“You may have some side effects,” the CDC said on its website, “which are normal signs that your body is building protection.”

Would going 5-for-35 from 3-point range at Oklahoma State count as a side effect? What about allowing a 5-15 Kansas State team to shoot 51%?

The 13th-ranked Longhorns have traveled an unorthodox, quarantined road since battling COVID-19 as a team in late January and early February. But Saturday’s 70-55 win over TCU sure looked awfully impressive, almost as if Texas is back to full strength — and just in time for the stretch run, too.

“Yes. Give you a simple answer: Yes,” Texas guard Matt Coleman III said. “With the games being played, with the practices that we’ve had, it allowed us to reconnect and focus on each other and understand our circle — that’s what we call it — of why we play and the process in order to win.”

Texas forward Jericho Sims scores on an alley-oop dunk in the first half of Saturday's win over TCU. Sims also had a solid game defensively.

The Horns (13-5, 7-4 Big 12) have a big week ahead. Texas will play at No. 12 Oklahoma on Tuesday, at Iowa State on Thursday and then back home against No. 14 West Virginia next Saturday. The NCAA Tournament selection committee has UT as a No. 4 seed in its first mock bracket, which was unveiled this weekend.

Coach Shaka Smart said he’s always focused on the team’s collective spirit. What is the players' mood? Are they engaged or not? “I felt like today, for the first time in quite a while, that was kind of where we want it to be,” Smart said.

He even texted with a friend immediately afterward and told him, “Man, I wish there was some formula to just make that happen every time.”

Andrew Jones was maniacal going to the rim and finished with a team-high 19 points. Coleman had 15 points and four assists, although it felt like more the way he directed traffic. And Greg Brown had one of his best games in a while, ringing up 13 points and six rebounds with no technical fouls. 

When asked what he’s learned from two technicals in the previous three games, Brown said, “Don’t get ’em. After the dunk today, I was like, ‘Great, don’t look at the dude.’ ”

The talented freshman is learning. As Smart says, the game is far more fun when you lose yourself in the fight to win. 

“There was one time, it was mid-second half, I looked up and was like, ‘Bro, what is the score?’ ” Brown said. “Yeah, I was having so much fun out there, I didn’t even know what the score was.”

TCU (11-8, 4-6) had all its fun early. RJ Nembhard started out with 10 quick points, all of them coming on four consecutive possessions. He looked possessed. Inside, outside, in-your-face defense or not. It was 90 seconds of game action that turns middle-aged salesmen into lunchtime all-stars at the local Y.

At the next stoppage, Smart looked rather animated while drawing and beating on his clipboard. The rest of the half, Nembhard went 0-for-6 and was a nonfactor. He finished with 15.

Texas' Greg Brown scores over TCU center Kevin Samuel during the second half Saturday. Samuel, one of the Big 12's top big men, finished with just three points.

Speaking of nonfactors, where was TCU’s Kevin Samuel? One of the most talented big men in the Big 12 was 0-for-1 in the first half and scored one lonely point via free throw. He finished with three points and three rebounds. Credit UT’s Jericho Sims for a strong game defensively. 

Texas broke open a four-point game in the second half by attacking the rim. Coleman forced a steal in the open floor, then went the other way and scored. Courtney Ramey found Sims for an alley-oop slam. Coleman tried to drive and threw it back out to Ramey before falling out bounds. Ramey attacked the paint, hit a tough off-balance jumper and drew the foul. It was a textbook and-one play. 

Along the way, the Horns turned up the defensive pressure. The Frogs went 1-for-9 shooting during a critical stretch in the second half. Kai Jones stood there and took the charge as Chuck O’Bannon Jr. buried his shoulder into the big man on a baseline drive. Smart and assistant K.T. Turner were over the moon on their socially distanced sideline.

Coleman’s turnaround 17-footer on the left wing felt like a dagger with 2 minutes, 5 seconds remaining. Kai Jones’ emphatic dunk with 47 seconds to go erased all doubt.

“I think we just had a lot of fun,” Coleman said. “At the end, I just think our foundation was the defensive end, playing with pace on the offensive end and just having that fun, playing with that swagger.”

Texas made only 6 of 21 3-point attempts but shot 49.1% overall. There’s no question this team shines offensively when it attacks the rim, as Andrew Jones did. 

It’s also a team that needs everyone to contribute. Ramey had only five points on 2-of-8 shooting, and some of those were slightly out of control. But he’s a huge voice in the locker room. 

Brock Cunningham didn’t score at all and had only three rebounds. But there’s no question that he’ll save this team’s bacon at some critical point in March. Jase Febres hasn’t gotten back to his long-range form, yet it’s doubtful he’ll stay quiet the rest of the season.

And yes, these Horns will need the defense, hustle and five fouls provided by Royce Hamm Jr. He did not play against TCU, perhaps a punitive move by Smart caused by the senior’s Twitter outburst after Tuesday’s win at Kansas State. Smart did not address his status during the post-TCU Zoom call.

Still, the Horns are again trending in the right direction. Here in mid-February, that’s probably all anyone can hope for in this wild, unpredictable pandemic season.

“I thought all 11 of our guys were really engaged in the game,” Smart said. “And our team spirit was better than it’s been for quite a while.”

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