Texas loses to Texas Tech, but beats adversity, in Big 12 quarterfinals
Despite loss to Red Raiders, persevering Longhorns hopeful they'll be invited to Big Dance
Facilities, money, power, exposure.
Just don't tell these particular Longhorns who hung their heads in the bowels of the Sprint Center on Thursday night.
Their season undoubtedly had been successful. You go from 11-22 to a supposed NCAA berth, well, that's improvement.
But when you have one teammate fighting leukemia, and another suspended, stained by whatever the FBI is investigating in college basketball, that's something different.
Texas lost to Texas Tech 73-69 in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals and maybe that wasn't the total story. The Red Raiders look like a squad that could win the tournament. Texas thought it was that team.
Now it was the Horns taking stock in a 19-14 season that could have been something much worse.
"You're dealing with a bunch of guys who fought their entire lives," 6-foot-11 freshman Mo Bamba said.
"We had five guys on the floor who played with a warrior spirit," coach Shaka Smart said.
These are the underpinnings of the No. 1-rated RPI conference in the country. Texas Tech is in the semifinals for the first time since 2005. Depending on which way the bracket blows, the Big 12 could get eight team in the NCAA Tournament. By percentage of members, that would be a record.
But the Longhorns weren't thinking about that Thursday night. They were thinking about teammate Andrew Jones who is fighting leukemia. They are thinking about guard Eric Davis, the only player suspended in the wake of the FBI probe.
They are thinking that even without those guys, they shouldn't have lost a game they easily could have won.
"Andrew, all he wanted to do is play basketball," said guard Jacob Young who went off for a career-high 29 points. "He can't do that. We said to ourselves, 'We're going to do what he wants to do.' Even though he's on the healthy side now, I know he wishes he was here with us helping us win."
Jones was diagnosed in early January. The team found out Jan. 10. After a stay in an Austin hospital, he is now undergoing outpatient treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston.
"AJ1" shirts were printed up to support Jones. Players around the Big 12 wore them in warm-ups. West Virginia players signed a ball.
Davis, a junior from Saginaw, Michigan, was averaging 8.8 points per game when a Yahoo report named him as a player receiving benefits from former agent Andy Miller.
"Eric kind of gave us our boost every day," Bamba said. "We refused to [lay down]. We just regrouped."
It was hard, then, to lament Bamba's injured toe that kept him out of the last three games. He is expected to be another one of those one-and-dones, a phrase almost recognized as curse words these days.
But at only 19 years of age, he developed into a leader and a sage. Bamba was supposed to be limited to only 10 minutes Thursday. He played 14 minutes getting 10 points on only five shots.
"They saw me practice," he said of his teammates. "I didn't keep anything in the dark from them."
Did those teammates need to see him out there prior to the NCAA Tournament?
"Absolutely. That was basically the point of playing."
Young had been averaging 5.2 points and shooting less than 40 percent. He came off the bench, played 32 minutes and more than doubled his previous career high (14 points).
Jacob is the son of Michael Young, a Phi Slama Jama member at Houston 35 years ago. Jacob's brother Joseph was the 2014-15 Pac-12 player of the year. Joseph was drafted in 2015 and still plays for the Indiana Pacers.
At 6-2, 185, Jacob probably isn't playing in the NBA. In fact his career night may end up being Thursday night.
"When I got in I was like, 'OK, just like practice,' " Young said.
Except it's a huge leap from the practice gym to the Big 12 tournament.
"That's why you don't see it until now," Young said after his 62nd career game.
These Longhorns aren't perfect. There were so many Red Raiders free underneath the basket in the second half they could have opened a lemonade stand. Texas finished 5-7 proving once again there may be no great teams anywhere.
But the Horns probably played their way into the bracket Wednesday with a gutty four-point win over last-place Iowa State. Guard Kerwin Roach had half of a front tooth knocked out in the game. A Kansas City Chiefs dentist at the Sprint Center literally glued it back on.
Now they wait for Sunday's Selection Show. The Horns expect to be in the tournament for the first time in two years, looking for their first tournament win in four years.
That's a picture of Smart's own adversity. In his third season, the one-time hottest coach around is 50-49 and looking for his first NCAA W.
But that didn't seem so important Thursday night.
"We have had a really good year," Smart said, "a ton of ups and down in terms of adversity we've been hit with. I think our guys responded with great resolve, great togetherness, great fight."
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