Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Through all the Madness, Texas keeps riding high, right into the Elite Eight

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KANSAS CITY — Though fans of rival fan bases may snicker at the thought, the life of a Texas supporter is a far more tortured one than appearances would suggest.

Sure, the Longhorns have one of the richest athletic departments in the country, perhaps the best recruiting base of talent to pluck from across sports, and a host of gleaming facilities in a state capital that seemingly always has some form of exciting entertainment close by.

Those in burnt orange do not shy from calling themselves best, as former athletic director DeLoss Dodds once lovingly noted to reporters, because the school doesn’t keep up with the Joneses in college athletics — they are them.

Yet for all the advantages UT has been given, underperforming such lofty expectations that have been self-appointed has also been a regular part of the story on the 40 Acres — especially in the two highest-profile sports on campus of football and men’s basketball. Time after time, all the signs pointed toward the avenue for success being there only for upsetting heartbreak to end up happening for one reason or another.

It may have even caused a few fans to ponder if the program wasn’t at least a little bit cursed, especially this season. When things like the starting quarterback getting injured on the precipice of beating a No. 1 ranked opponent at home happens — or a promising basketball campaign looks derailed after an unexpected domestic violence incident resulted in their head coach getting fired — perhaps it doesn’t take long to find a few tidbits of supporting documentation for such a theory.

In the waning final minutes of Friday evening, however, there were a handful of hints that any such bad luck surrounding Texas was, in fact, misplaced at the moment. Heck, given events elsewhere around the country this month, perhaps it’s even so accurate to say that luck is even on the Longhorns’ side right now.

“You learn that anything can happen in March,” said interim coach Rodney Terry, who took over for Chris Beard after eight games and hasn’t looked back since, guiding the team to within 40 minutes of the first Final Four appearance by a team in its home state since 2010. “That’s why it’s the madness.”

Madness indeed.

Madness that it was Terry’s name that supporters chanted loudly as he skipped off the court at T-Mobile Center, raising his hand in celebration not unlike the conquering hero that he had transformed into — after few viewed him more than a placeholder when first handed the gig in January.

Madness that Texas is in its first Elite Eight since 2008, all courtesy of a start-to-finish 83-71 destruction of Xavier in the Midwest Regional semifinal despite missing starter Dylan Disu for most of the night after he had a career outing to even get them to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament just days prior.

Madness that fellow starting forward Timmy Allen, absent two weeks ago in the same building for a magical Big 12 Tournament run helped secure the team’s No. 2 seed in the bracket, could open the bank and find the net from the midcourt logo a split second before the halftime buzzer to set the tone for how things would unfold.

“I think you learn over the course of the NCAA Tournament, you have to play the game for 40 minutes. We’re a pretty emotional team. A lot of times we feed off of our emotions in terms of how hard we play,” added Terry. “I’ve got an older team that really understands playing with poise, playing with emotion, but also trying to finish the game as well. In the NCAA Tournament, you’ve got to play start to finish.”

The fact that the Longhorns did so without the services of Disu made it all the more impressive in seeing others step up. The senior grabbed an early rebound but ended up playing less than two minutes before being subbed out and returning to the sidelines in a walking boot. School officials labeled the injury a bone bruise that had lingered from his outing against Penn State last week, where he seemed well enough to finish with a career-high 28 points and break Kevin Durant’s program record for most field goals in an NCAA Tournament game. 

“Luckily for us, we’re one of those teams that really came together. We did work in the offseason a lot on getting to know each other and spending time together. But that doesn’t ensure that you’re going to like everyone on the team,” said Disu afterward, noting it was difficult for him to run as a result of the injury. “That’s all I can say. Everyone in here wants the best for the team and for each other. And so when you got guys like that it’s hard not to be close.”

“Other guys got a chance to step up and have opportunities,” added Terry. “I thought (Christian Bishop) stepped up and gave us some incredible minutes for the better part of the game. I thought Brock [Cunningham] came in and gave us great minutes. I thought Dillon Mitchell did his part in terms of what we needed to do. This has been a very resilient team all year long. We’ve been in this position before. When you play in that Big 12 league, you’ve been battle tested. It’s not anything you really haven’t faced all year long — foul trouble, an injured guy. You just keep playing and keep working the game for 40 minutes.”

Bishop poured in 18 points and nine rebounds off the bench over just 24 minutes of work, an efficient outing on a night in which nearly all the Longhorns had the scoring touch and the team dominated in the paint nearly two-to-one over the Musketeers.

Allen finished with 11 points, Tyrese Hunter was perfect from beyond the arc to help record a team-high 19 points, and Marcus Carr chipped in with 18 more.  

It was all part of an overwhelming effort right from tip-off for the Horns, who never trailed and spent just 16 seconds all night without being in front.

“We had a very difficult time running our offense, which is a real testament to their defense because we’ve been able to score virtually every game we’ve played this year, maybe other than once,” a dejected Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “Their pressure is something you can’t really simulate until you’re in the game against them. Their toughness, their experience. And then offensively they have great guard play, and you feel that as well. There are times when we started to score, and then we had an equally hard time defending them.”

Though a disappointing end result on the court to end Miller’s first season back with the program he first established himself as a head coach, reaching the Sweet 16 was still a quality outcome when you pulled back on the perspective of a group that a year ago was making a run in the NIT.

“I told them after the game, among the many teams that I’ve had, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a group, a coaching staff, than this group. What we’ve been able to accomplish this year speaks for itself. 15-5 in the Big East, being in the Sweet 16 game We came a long way from November until late March. These guys right here had a lot to do with it. I’m really proud of them. I think they represent Xavier University about as well as you can as a student-athlete.”

Guard Souley Boum, who interestingly played for Terry when the pair were together at UTEP, ended his career with an off-night from the field, recording just 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting. Adam Kunkel did muster a game-high 21, but it was never quite enough to put a dent into a lead that swelled to as many as 24 at one point in the second half. 

“I know my time here was short. It went by very fast. It felt like I got here in the summer not too long ago, but I remember everything,” said an emotional Boum. “I appreciate this university. I appreciate Coach (Miller) for believing in me, giving me the chance, an opportunity to come here and play. I just appreciate everybody.”

That also includes Terry, whom the graduate transfer embraced several times over the course of the week and still communicates with regularly. 

While the contents of their text messages will remain private, it probably wouldn’t be too off the mark to characterize a few of the recent ones as words of encouragement given the task at hand for a coach who is not only embarking upon an improbable run toward the permanent gig in Austin — but one who might now incredibly be favored to cut down the nets just a short drive from where he grew up south of Houston.

Following a remarkable string of chaotic results both on Friday and in the rounds preceding it, this will be the first NCAA Tournament without a single No. 1 seed in the Elite Eight since seeding began in 1979 — and just the third time ever a top-seeded team won’t appear in the Final Four. 

The last time that happened? Back in 2011, when college basketball’s grandest stage also happened to be in Houston at NRG Stadium.

“Continue to want more. I mean, each round. Don’t be satisfied,” Terry said of the message to his team ahead of Sunday’s Midwest Regional final against No. 5 seed Miami. “We’re going to enjoy this victory for one night, like we have all year long, and we’ll be on to the next challenge.”

Embracing the path forward to such a momentous obstacle can sometimes be a difficult one at Texas. But as the Longhorns and their interim coach have recently started to reaffirm, it’s one they’re certainly trying to embrace amid such an unexpected hot streak that leaves them on the brink of history — and a positive one at that — once more.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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