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Prior to the Big 12 Tournament one year ago, Texas was uncertain if it would be in the field of 68. A five-game win streak put them back in the conversation, but there was no certainty of their place in March Madness.
Not this year. Their place in the NCAA Tournament is assured.
Despite a global pandemic, pauses, positive cases, practices with two players, and a host of other issues, a roster nearly identical to last season’s returned to Kansas City with one goal: to bring the first Big 12 Tournament Championship in school history back to Austin. Thanks to career-highs in scoring from seniors Matt Coleman (30 points) and Jericho Sims (21 points), Texas topped a surging Oklahoma State team 91-86 in the Big 12 Tournament final, cut down the nets, and punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis.
“This is a gift to everyone, whether they’ve supported us or not,” Smart said, echoing a phrase once said by legendary Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido. “There’s a lot of people that have supported us and we’re grateful for that. But you know, the most important thing is our guys stayed connected, and I’m just happy that they get to experience this feeling.”
Coleman delivered the best performance of his four-year career. No other Longhorn, not TJ Ford, not Kevin Durant, not DJ Augustin, achieved what Coleman was able to achieve in this specific moment. Durant and Augustin made it to the same stage in Kansas City but they fell in the 2007 and 2008 championship games. A career-high 30, including 21 in the second half, ensured Coleman a unique place in Longhorn basketball history and honors as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“I’m just so happy that he’s being able to live out what we talked about during the recruiting process and what we’ve talked about over these last three years,” Smart said.
Typically, Coleman is as much of a creator for others as he is for himself. He averaged a team-high 4.2 assists per game in 2020-21. Saturday was different. Coleman was locked in, his shot was falling, and eventually OSU coach Mike Boynton began to treat Coleman like opponents treat his star, Cade Cunningham. The Cowboys made every effort to deny the ball to Coleman, who made 10 field goals in a game for the first time in his career.
Even if their efforts were successful, and they rarely were, the Longhorns had another option.
Sims added nine points in the first half on 4-of-5 shooting. He was a presence on the boards with seven rebounds. Although quiet and stoic on the court, Sims game caught fire as his confidence grew. Texas fed him despite OSU’s repeated zone defense efforts. The senior showcased his footwork and bullied defenders near the basket before deciding on a move.
Once he realized Oklahoma State had no one who could defend him, it inspired him to attack more and more.
“If I catch it, I go,” Sims said. “Not a whole lot to it. I just know that not a whole lot of guys are going to contest it. They find me in there and I do what I do.”
Sims was 4-of-6 in the second half and added 12 points. In the late stages of the game, the Cowboys put the pressure on Sims to make free throws. He shot right at his season average of 50 percent, making 4-of-8 and stymieing the effectiveness of the strategy. Sims was not just a force scoring. The Longhorns pulled down 39 total rebounds. Sims accounted for 14 of them, including six offensive rebounds, and added important blocks, too.
He even cracked a smile during his 21-point, 14-rebound performance. It may have been his first on the court in four years.
“Tremendous enjoyment,” Sims said deadpan. “We haven’t done this before. Nobody from Texas has done this before. We’re just happy to be the first. All the hard work that we put into this has allowed us to get to this point. We’re very proud of ourselves.”
Coleman was more emotional, he shed tears of pure elation on the court during of the trophy ceremony. After all, he and Smart go back almost a decade. Smart recruited Coleman to VCU while the guard was in eighth grade, and the relationship carried over to Texas. Smart said postgame he was able to defeat Duke for Coleman’s commitment. From there, they’ve built more than just a bond as a player and a coach.
“Nothing compares, and I wouldn’t trade anything,” Coleman said. “No teammate, no coach. I wouldn’t trade Coach Smart for the world. I appreciate him just sticking with me since day one, and I’m glad that we have something to show for it.”
Texas received a fortuitous break in Kansas’ withdrawal from the tournament due to COVID-19. It allowed UT to advance from the quarterfinals to the finals and offer a day of practice.
They still had to beat one of the hottest teams in the country in OSU, and needed every effort from Coleman, Sims, and the whole roster to do it.
“It was us against them,” Smart said. “They had been playing so well that a lot of people said we were the underdog. But our guys played, came and got it, and went and grabbed a championship.”
Cover photo courtesy of Texas Basketball