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Abilene Christian 53, Texas 52: Longhorns suffer gut-punching loss in NCAA opener

ACU grabs 18 offensive rebounds as Texas turns it over season-high 23 times at Lucas Oil Stadium

Texas guard Matt Coleman III walks away as Abilene Christian's bench reacts after a play in the second half of ACU's 53-52 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The third-seeded Longhorns committed a season-high 23 turnovers.

Shaka Smart’s best team so far at Texas looked nervous at the start and tight at the finish Saturday night against Abilene Christian. Yet another NCAA Tournament nightmare, this time in Indianapolis.

His three best guards — Matt Coleman III, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones — combined for 15 of the team’s season-high 23 turnovers.

His best big man, Jericho Sims, shot the ball only three times all night despite having a huge size advantage over the tenacious Wildcats.

His best decision of the year, putting Kai Jones in the starting lineup, didn’t pay off like it did in Kansas City. The likely NBA-bound sophomore had 11 points and just three rebounds.

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Smart's best chance at a deep NCAA Tournament run at Texas is now over, too. The third-seeded Longhorns suffered a 53-52 gut-punching loss at Lucas Oil Stadium in what became easily the biggest win in Abilene Christian program history. 

“We just beat the University of Texas,” ACU coach Joe Golding said. “Little old Abilene Christian out in West Texas built a program that went toe-to-toe with the University of Texas and it’s an incredible story. It’s what March is about.”

The Big 12 was 6-0 in the NCAAs until the 14th-seeded Wildcats took down the Big 12 tournament champs. Abilene Christian (24-4) advanced to the round of 32 and will face UCLA as Texas heads home from the Indianapolis bubble.

“Lot of tears in the locker room right now,” Smart said. “Lot of guys extremely upset about the way the game ended, the fact that we have to go home now. Really disappointed. Everybody is.”

Andrew Jones buried a 3-pointer with 13.8 seconds left to give Texas a one-point lead. But Abilene Christian’s Joe Pleasant got fouled by Coleman with 1.2 seconds left. Was it a phantom call? “The ref called a foul, so I guess it was a foul,” Coleman said.

Abilene Christian's Coryon Mason moves the ball up the court during the first half Saturday night. The Wildcats will face UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Pleasant, a 58.8% free throw shooter, drilled both shots to give the Wildcats the lead. The game ended on Texas’ 23rd turnover of the night as the Horns were in full scramble mode.

“You got to believe that you can beat any team that you're playing,” Pleasant said. “At the end of the day we’re all playing basketball. They’re just like us, you know, they put their pants on the same way we do, one leg at a time. So at the end of the day, just go out there compete and give it our best shot and that's what we did tonight.”

It’s a special team from Abilene, no doubt. This was supposed to be a special group from Austin, too. 

Texas won the Maui Invitational, finished third in the rugged Big 12, swept Kansas during the regular season and won the Big 12 Tournament for the first time in school history. But this sport is all about what happens in March. The Horns are one and done yet again and finished the season 19-8.

“It just doesn't feel real,” Coleman said. “I feel like I'm going to wake up from a bad dream.”

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Smart is now 0-3 in three NCAA trips with UT, and the question must be asked: If he can’t win in the NCAAs with this team, will Smart ever win anything substantial at UT? The coach has two years remaining on his contract with an estimated $7.1 million buyout.

“I told our guys, I thought coming into this tournament, the way that they handled all the things that were thrown our way all year long was just phenomenal,” Smart said. “A lot of stuff that could have made people crack or quit or separate and they really stayed together. 

“But tonight, obviously we didn’t play our best and Abilene Christian deserves a lot of credit for that, the way they defended,” he added.

The Horns were the ones who looked nervous from the start. The Wildcats were racing around as if someone kicked a bed of fire ants. Texas opened with its traditional play to Sims, who slammed it home, but it was a 10-10 game about seven minutes in.

Andrew Jones was air-balling shots and Ramey was missing layups. Greg Brown swished a 3-pointer in the corner for his only contribution of the night; Smart benched the freshman in the second half and stuck with the veterans.

Texas' Kai Jones defends against Abilene Christian's Joe Pleasant in the first half. The Wildcats won 53-52 to advance to the round of 32.

Asked why Brown didn’t play more in the second half, Smart said, “We just were trying to play to win. Same thing that we do in any game.” Brown played one minute in the second half, six minutes total.

The Horns appeared to be OK at halftime by closing on a 6-0 run. The Wildcats missed their final 12 shots before the break and trailed by five. 

When the second half began, Kai Jones hit a 15-footer and showed off a nifty Euro step move for another bucket, putting Texas up 32-23. 

“Yeah, I wasn't surprised by our guys being nervous early in the game,” Smart said. “It’s typically the case in your first NCAA Tournament game, particularly after us really being in the bubble here for a week. But I really felt like we would settle in.”

Smart noted the Horns had a nine-point lead, but “we weren’t able to sustain it.”

Coryon Mason converted a three-point play for ACU. Clay Gayman hit two free throws, and Mahki Morris scored on a put-back. Suddenly, it was a two-point game. 

When Reggie Miller hit a wild, lucky shot while falling down, the Horns should have known they were in trouble. That crazy bucket gave ACU a 37-36 lead and true belief. It was back and forth the rest of the way.

Even with all of UT’s turnovers, ACU couldn’t pull away as the Wildcats were 3-for-18 from 3-point range. But ACU had 18 offensive rebounds compared to Texas’ five.

“We showed tremendous heart tonight, a ton of adversity all night long, couldn’t get the ball to go in the basket, couldn’t find a way to score, but just continued to guard and found a way to get on the offensive glass,” Golding said.

The Longhorns are now headed home and headed into an uncertain future. The roster will be overhauled, and the coach’s future is now in doubt. As a program, Texas still has not won an NCAA Tournament game since Cam Ridley’s scoop-and-score against Arizona State in 2014. 

“Had a special group of guys,” Coleman said. “Our big picture wasn’t accomplished. If you don’t accomplish your goal in life, you don’t feel too good.”

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