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No. 15 Texas 81, Iowa State 67: One year after injury, Febres ready to contribute again

Febres goes 3-for-4 from 3-point range as Longhorns get past slumping Cyclones

Texas guard Jase Febres fights for a loose ball with Iowa State guard Tre Jackson during the Longhorns' 81-67 victory Tuesday night in Ames, Iowa. Febres, who has battled a slow comeback from knee surgery last year, had his best game of the season.

When an athlete can’t play because of injury, it leads to some lonely days. The mind drifts as your team plays on.

Texas guard Jase Febres had arthroscopic knee surgery one year ago. The road back was every bit as challenging mentally as it was physically.

“From having to re-learn how to walk, to run, to moving on defense. It’s been a long journey,” Febres said. “This whole journey has been a good one, and it’s built a lot of character for me more than anything.”

Tuesday night, inside Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, was the first time since the injury that Febres looked like his old self. The senior from Houston hit three 3-pointers as No. 15 Texas got past struggling Iowa State with an 81-67 victory.

The Longhorns (15-7, 9-6 Big 12) used a 17-0 run in the first half to build the lead. While it wasn’t totally pretty, with 19 turnovers, it was effective. The Cyclones (2-19, 0-16) were competitive throughout but never really threatened the Horns down the stretch.

It was a solid way to start a stretch of three road games in six days to close out the regular season. Texas left Ames immediately and went straight to Norman, Okla., to face No. 16 Oklahoma at 8 p.m. Thursday. 

Kai Jones sure had a good start to this busy week. He had 17 points off the bench and grabbed eight rebounds against the Cyclones. Jones had to play well considering starter Jericho Sims had a frustrating night. Sims had just six points, no rebounds and fouled out in just 11 minutes.

Texas forward Kai Jones dunks the ball ahead of Iowa State forward Javan Johnson during the first half on Tuesday.

About the only thing teammates will poke Jones about was his inability to finish off a dunk at the rim. 

“I think I should have tried to lay it up,” Jones said. “I tried to dunk it. My legs probably were a little tired. Coach was just telling me to move on, leave it in the past and move on to the next thing.”

Legs weren’t a problem for him at the foul line. Jones was 9-for-10 at the stripe as Texas had a terrific night collecting free points. This team catches grief when they clang free throws, and they deserve credit when they swish true. Texas made 20 of 23 freebies, a stunning 87%.

“He had some plays tonight where he really played with great maximum effort, multiple efforts," UT coach Shaka Smart said of Jones. “When he does that, he’s really, really special as a player.”

Febres has enjoyed special moments throughout his career, too. He’s drilled 3-pointers in rat-a-tat fashion, most notably at Baylor, Kansas and throughout the NIT championship run in 2019. 

That all came to a halt last February, though. Febres’ season was cut short due to knee pain, then Texas’ entire season was stopped because of the pandemic. His surgery was in March, and most thought that Febres would be ready to go when October rolled around. So did Smart.

But Febres wasn’t cleared for full-contact, five-on-five activity until Christmas. He made his season debut on Jan. 16 against Kansas State, hitting two 3-pointers and playing 22 minutes. He went into Tuesday’s game having gone 6-for-21 from long range while playing sporadic minutes.

Febres, a career 36% 3-point shooter, looked good stepping into one, giving Texas a 26-13 lead midway through the first half. While the Horns were building that 17-0 run, the Cyclones were busy missing six shots and turning it over six times.

Texas forward Greg Brown tries to block Iowa State forward Javan Johnson's shot during the second half.

Febres drilled two more 3-pointers in the second half, finishing 3-for-4 on the night from downtown.

“I’m not 100% as far as where I want to be, but I’m definitely making large strides to getting to where I was,” he said.

Smart helped Febres constantly work on his “mindfulness.” The coach demanded his veteran guard stay present in the moment, lead from the sideline and find ways to impact the game off the floor.

“The journey’s been tough,” Smart said. “The surgery he had was pretty extensive, and I think all of us thought that he was going to be able to come back sooner than he did. For whatever reason, it took longer. That’s been really frustrating for him at times. 

“Jase is very polite, doesn’t rock the boat, doesn’t complain, very mature, but like anyone else, something like that bothered him and frustrated him,” Smart added. “It frustrated me as well. It’s good to see him continuing to work his way back.”

It’s tempting to think of Febres as a critical 3-point threat when postseason play begins. But the coaching staff probably can’t build game plans believing they’ll get certain production from him each night. The consistency isn’t there yet.

It’s almost like whatever the Horns get from Febres is a welcome bonus. Smart said Febres still needs to build up his confidence on defense, staying in a stance and staying in front of his man. That’s part of the journey back mentally, too.

“Really what he did tonight would be great,” Smart said. “When he’s in, he gives our team another experienced guy that understands certain coverages on defense and isn’t going to make young guy mistakes.”

Febres practically jumped out of his skin talking about his aspirations for these Horns. He’s excited to be a contributing member again.

“From the beginning of the year, I know we’ve been special,” Febres said. “That’s what is eating me up the whole year, is not being able to be out there with the guys. Now that I’m out here, we’re getting back connected, getting back locked in for tournament time. We’re going to be ready.”

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