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No. 13 Texas 91, No. 12 Oklahoma State 86: Big 12 tournament an indelible moment for Smart, Horns

Mar 13, 2021; Kansas City, MO, USA; The Texas Longhorns pose for a photo after winning the Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at T-Mobile Center.

It’s taken six seasons with multiple fits and starts, but No. 13 Texas has reached escape velocity from being average. These Longhorns, riding or dying with coach Shaka Smart, are Big 12 tournament champions.

On Saturday against No. 12 Oklahoma State, every Longhorn met the moment. The end result was a sizzling 91-86 victory at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo., that guaranteed a burnt-orange spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Maybe someone will question the validity of this achievement since Texas (19-7) had to play only two games, not three because of Kansas’ COVID-19 withdraw. But there will be no asterisk on UT’s rings, arena banner or Big 12 record book. As Smart said, “It was outside of our control.”

The NCAA Tournament selection show is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday.

Texas basketball:Longhorns defeat Oklahoma State, wins first Big 12 Conference tournament

With ice coursing through his veins, Matt Coleman III had a career-high 30 points by hitting 10 of 14 shots. “Man, I just cried,” the tournament’s most outstanding player said. “It was like tears of joy.”

Flashing NBA-level post moves and dynamite footwork, Jericho Sims abused the Cowboys inside for 21 points and 14 rebounds. “We’re very proud of ourselves,” the introspective big man said. “Big game, so I’ve got to show up. That’s about it.”

Texas players celebrate after winning their NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma State for the Big 12 tournament championship in Kansas City, Mo, Saturday, March 13, 2021.

Given a chance for a rare start, Kai Jones showed eye-popping athleticism that will make some NBA team happy soon. Jones finished with 13 points and five rebounds despite playing through foul trouble.

“It was huge for me because it was just a matter of knowing who I really was,” the Big 12’s sixth man of the year said. “I’m always ready when my number’s called. I was ready to go.”

Unleashed to cause havoc, Brock Cunningham was out there raising hell. He had eight rebounds, seven points, a rare 3-pointer and plenty of smack talk just to get under Cade Cunningham’s skin.

“Not someone to take anything form anybody and just hold my ground,” the bacon-saving sophomore said.

And when Smart entered the locker room afterward, he got the most refreshing water bottle bath any coach could enjoy. His Longhorns became the first Texas-based school to win the Big 12 tournament since the league’s inception 25 years ago. Before Saturday, Texas had gone 0-6 in the championship game.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart motions to the crowd after winning their NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma State for the Big 12 tournament championship in Kansas City, Mo, Saturday, March 13, 2021.

A coach who has taken immeasurable grief for not living up to his predecessors got to cut down the net in Kansas City. He’s hoping for more of that in the weeks to come.

“It feels great. Feels great. I’m more than anything happy for our guys,” Smart said. “Someone asked me, what do you say to those people or whatever? One of the most impressive people I've ever been around was Augie Garrido. And he once said, in a similar situation, this is a gift to them. So you know, that's kind of how I feel. 

“This is a gift to everyone, whether they've supported us or not,” Smart said. “There's a lot of people that have supported us, and we’re grateful for that. But the most important thing is our guys stayed connected. And I’m just happy that they get to experience this feeling.”

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The late Garrido once said he “presented” the NCAA national title to Texas fans in 2002. Smart and Garrido were close before the legendary UT baseball coach’s death in 2018. Their commonality was in being complex thinkers — not to mention fierce competitors.

Smart rarely shows his competitive side publicly. There’s no YouTube video of him peeling paint off the walls in a profanity-laced tirade after an early-season loss, at least not one that anyone knows. 

But the Northern Iowa and Nevada losses, two especially disastrous trips to West Virginia, a potentially career-derailing loss at Iowa State, all of them destroyed him internally over the last five-plus seasons. Those made him tougher, too. As much as he loves the players, Smart thinks, what’s in the best interest for Texas?

So there was Smart, making the tough decision to change his starting lineup in the biggest game yet this season. Smart told ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla that he put Kai Jones into the starting lineup over Greg Brown in part because of the freshman’s sideline meltdown Thursday against Texas Tech.

Kai Jones rewarded his coach with instant production, a huge offensive rebound and layup right out the gate. Jones had two free throws and a transition layup, and the Horns were up 11-8.

Mar 13, 2021; Kansas City, MO, USA; Texas Longhorns forward Kai Jones (22) is fouled by Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Cade Cunningham (2) during the first half at T-Mobile Center.

“This is a magical moment for him,” Kai Jones said. “I want to make more magic moments for him as well.”

Coleman was getting his shots, but the guards were feeding Sims, too. Between Sims and Kai Jones, you’ll be hard pressed to find another 1-2 frontcourt combo in the NCAAs. 

Cade Cunningham, a noted second-half scoring machine, got going in the second half. Oklahoma State (20-8) got within four with about 10 minutes left, and Texas was in the bonus with 9:34 remaining. That meant lots and lots of free throws down the stretch.

Smart’s previous teams have been some of the worst free throw shooters in the Big 12. On this night, Texas hit 28 of 36 from the stripe. Those numbers more than outweighed Oklahoma State’s 13 for 17. 

Smart stuck with those who were hot down the stretch. Andrew Jones scored, giving Texas a 79-71 lead. Jase Febres, Andrew Jones and Coleman all hit key free throws in the closing minutes. 

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The Cowboys seemed content to let Cade Cunningham try and win the game. But he took too much time on some possessions wanting to back down his defender and look for the perfect, point-blank shot. Still, the Big 12’s leading scorer finished with 29 points and left no doubt that he’ll be at least a top-three pick in the upcoming draft.

Oklahoma State is going to be an extremely tough out in the NCAAs. But so will Texas.

Smart’s club has an undeniably clutch point guard in Coleman and two strong countermeasures in Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey. Sims and Kai Jones are bullies inside, and Brock Cunningham will fight you just about anywhere you’d like. Jase Febres is a savvy 3-point shooter off the bench. 

It’s a veteran team that now has a championship ring and bullet-proof confidence. Texas isn’t coming home from Kansas City, either. The Horns are going straight on to Indianapolis and into the NCAA bubble.

Staying there well into early April would be rather sensational, for both the Horns and Smart.

“He’s been through it all here,” Coleman said. “I’m happy for him. That’s all I can say. I’m just happy for him.”

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