KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)The players flooded off the Texas bench, right past interim coach Rodney Terry and to the middle of the court inside T-Mobile Center, where they couldn’t wait to get their hands on the trophy crowning them Big 12 champions.
After the season they had, who could blame them?
It began under the darkest of clouds with their high-profile coach, Chris Beard, fired following a domestic incident. Terry was given the job and the tall task of guiding the Longhorns through a grueling schedule, and what many have called one of the toughest conferences in college basketball history.
But after finishing second to Kansas in the regular season, the seventh-ranked Longhorns proved Saturday night they were champs in their own right, blowing out the third-ranked Jayhawks 76-56 in the Big 12 finals.
Dylan Disu overcame early foul trouble to score 18 points and was tournament MVP. Marcus Carr and Sir’Jabari Rice, who also landed on the all-tournament team, had 17 apiece. And just about everyone wearing burnt orange had a hand in shutting down the Jayhawks, who were trying to win a second straight tournament title.
“There probably hasn’t been a team challenged as much in terms of adversity or staying the course,” Terry said, his voice long gone hoarse. “There was no nights off. This tournament, we knew, was going to be tough as well, but we were excited about it, and these guys’ approach and their attitudes – they wanted to be champions, and they made it happen.”
After going more than two decades without a Big 12 tourney title, the Longhorns (26-8) have won two of the past three, and likely wrapped up a No. 2 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament with their performance in Kansas City.
“You only take this win for one night,” said Brock Cunningham, who was on that 2021 title team that was then bounced in the first round of the NCAA tourney. “We’ll have this win tonight and then we’ll get back to work.”
The Jayhawks played once again without Hall of Fame coach Bill Self, who went to the emergency room on the eve of their quarterfinal for an undisclosed medical procedure. Self’s longtime assistant and acting coach, Norm Roberts, said afterward that he hopes to have Self back when they begin defense of their NCAA title next week.
Jalen Wilson scored 24 points and Joseph Yesufu, pressed into the starting lineup due to injuries, finished with 11 for the Jayhawks (27-7), who had won 13 of their previous 16 trips to the Big 12 finals.
The question now is whether the defending national champs did enough before Saturday night to earn the overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, and with it a favorable road through Kansas City in the regional round.
“Give Texas a lot of credit. They played really well,” Roberts said. “They’re very athletic; we knew that. Fast. They have some really good offensive players. I thought we did a good job early in the game, but then we missed a bunch of bunnies, easy shots and putbacks that could have kept us in the game, and then I think fatigue took over.”
Both teams were missing starters Saturday night due to injuries – Kevin McCullar Jr. for the Jayhawks, Timmy Allen for the Longhorns – yet there was still plenty of star power on display inside T-Mobile Center.
Wilson, the league’s player of the year, kept the Jayhawks afloat during a scattershot first half. He scored 17 points, more than half their total, while pounding the glass and even picking up a steal.
Texas, meanwhile, relied on depth and balance in forging a 39-33 halftime lead. It had to after losing Disu, a revelation in the previous two rounds, to a pair of fouls less than eight minutes into the game.
“Everybody on the court was doing their part,” Carr said later, “cutting, moving, knocking down shots.”
When Disu returned, the big man went right to work. He had a couple of baskets in the opening minutes, and a nearly five-minute drought by Kansas allowed the Longhorns to extend their lead to 53-41 with 12 minutes to go.
By that point, about 500 Texas fans sounded like 15,000. And about 15,000 Kansas fans were dead silent.
The knockout blow came moments later, when Disu’s baskets bookended one by Rice, and Arterio Morris added an ally-oop dunk. That pushed the Longhorns’ lead to 70-50 with 4 1/2 minutes to go, and while Roberts finally called a timeout to slow the onslaught, it came far too late to make a difference.
“I don’t think we really thought about the game was over at any point,” Rice said. “We just kept playing, and whatever the outcome was going to be when the buzzer sounded, that’s what we cared about.”
McCullar, the Jayhawks’ defensive dynamo, has been dealing with back spasms that flared up again during a semifinal win over Iowa State; he watched from the bench in sweats. The Longhorns were without Allen all tournament while the veteran leader rested a lower leg injury ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
Texas shot 50% from the field but was especially good inside the arc – the Longhorns were just 4 of 17 on 3s. And rarely did they go more than a couple of minutes without a basket, preventing Kansas from getting its crowd into the game.
Kansas was forced to use some different lineups with McCullar out, playing freshman MJ Rice extra minutes. The Jayhawks rarely seemed in sync, and that was evident in Dajuan Harris Jr. turning the ball over an uncharacteristic four times.
The Longhorns and Jayhawks are headed to the NCAA Tournament. They’ll learn Sunday night who, when and where they will play in the first round.
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