KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the clock ticked down to 0:00 at the end of the Texas Longhorns’ 91-86 victory Saturday over the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the title game of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship at the T-Mobile Center, guard Matt Coleman locked in an emotional embrace with head coach Shaka Smart.
A coach hugging a star player who leads a team to a championship is anything but an uncommon sight. With Smart and Coleman, however, the emotions ran a little deeper.
“He’s playing at such a high level right now, with so much confidence,” Smart said after Coleman led UT to its first championship in the tournament in the history of the program. “This is what he came here to do.
“You know, at the end of the day, he had to decide between us and Duke. When you’re a kid coming out of high school, and a program like that wants you, and a coach like [Mike Krzyzewski] … I mean, it takes a special type of guy to say, ‘Nah, I’m going to do something different’ … and he did that, and he believed in us and our program. I’m just so happy that he’s being able to live out what we talked about during the recruiting process and what we talked about over these last three years.”
In a balance that seemed only appropriate, Coleman said he was as proud of his coach as Smart was of him.
“I just cried,” Coleman said. “It was like tears of joy. I said, ‘Coach, this is what we’ve been saying since Day 1. It took four years to make it happen, to take a step in the right direction, man, and you did this. You built a culture here, and I’m proud to be a part of it.’ The rest was just tears and feeling his love. It’s deeper than the game of basketball.”
Coleman was spectacular on a day when his team needed him to be, pouring in a career-high 30 points, becoming the first Longhorn to score 30 in a Big 12 tournament game since Kevin Durant. Coleman hit 10 of 14 shots from the floor, including four of five from three-point range, and connecting on all six of his free throws.
Coleman’s offensive outburst only slightly overshadowed a sensational performance by senior forward Jericho Sims, who also reached a new career high with 21 points and pulled down a season-high 14 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season, his third in the Horns’ last four games. For good measure, he also tacked on a career-high three steals.
The victory left the No. 13/16 Longhorns to wait for the announcement of their NCAA tournament seeding with a 19-7 record, while No. 12/14 Oklahoma State fell to 20-8.
The 91 points were the most UT has scored in a Big 12 tournament game, surpassing the 89 scored in 2002 against Missouri. The Horns also broke the school Big 12 tournament record for made free throws in a game with 28 and free throws attempted (36).
Coleman and Sims were the stars of the night, but were far from the only contributors. Guard Andrew Jones and forward Kai Jones added 13 points apiece, while forward Brock Cunningham matched Sims with three steals, and Courtney Ramey handed out five assists.
Some teams have breakout offensive performances when their players start nailing three-pointers from every corner of the gym, but other than Coleman, the Longhorns were quiet from long range. While Coleman shot 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, his teammates hit a combined three of 13, with Andrew Jones, Kai Jones and Cunningham each hitting once from outside the stripe.
“We knew, coming in, it was going to be a heck of a battle,” Smart said. “We knew there was going to be a lot of plays made, both ways.”
For Oklahoma State, most of those plays were made by do-everything freshman Cade Cunningham, the first-team All-Big 12 honoree and the conference’s unanimous Freshman of the Year, who is widely expected to be the first pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Cunningham was spectacular, but Smart said he was impressed by his team’s ability to survive Cunningham’s onslaught and still make the plays needed to bring the tournament title to Austin.
“Cade was phenomenal,” Smart said. “He kept making shots at the end there, to keep them attached, and in the game. But I thought our guys’ poise against the press and ability to make free throws … was a big, big difference.”
Pressed for how the victory feels to him, Smart acknowledged his satisfaction with the Longhorns’ accomplishment … temporarily, before immediately swerving back to his focus on what the tournament crown means for the players who earned it on the floor.
“It feels great — it feels great,” Smart said. “More than anything, I’m happy for our guys. The most important thing is that our guys stayed connected, and I’m happy they get to experience this feeling.”
The NCAA tournament bracket will be announced at 5 p.m. (Central time) Sunday.