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Mike Lopresti | | March 8, 2018

Texas still finding ways to win in deep conference despite player injuries, adversity

Get ready for Selection Sunday!

KANSAS CITY – Somehow, this typified the season for Texas. That Shaka Smart would start his post-game press conference thanking the Kansas City Chiefs’ dentist, who had to piece back together one of the Longhorns’ teeth at halftime.


Texas beat Iowa State 68-64 Wednesday, but it wasn’t easy. Nothing has been easy.

Not with the seven overtime games the Longhorns have had to play.

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Not losing Mohamed Bamba – the Big 12’s baddest man in the paint – here at the end for a while with a toe injury. And guard Eric Davis Jr. to a suspension as part of the FBI situation. And most of all, the awful night in January when they all found out about Andrew Jones’ leukemia diagnosis.

Three key players out. A roster shaken. A merciless league schedule to play. But the Longhorns are 19-13 after Wednesday night, looking good for the NCAA Tournament despite all the obstacles. “We are definitely resilient,” junior guard Kerwin Roach II was saying in the locker room, and if he seemed a little hard to understand, no wonder.

It was his mouth that got in the way of an inadvertent Iowa State elbow in the first half. Let him take it from there.

“I just felt like wind was going through my mouth more than normal. I looked down and saw the tooth on about the free throw line.

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“I was kind of worried because I had braces for a little while, and I thought all that money went to waste."

Someone retrieved his tooth -- it had actually split and not all come out -- and the Chiefs dentist dropped by the locker room at halftime to help. “They basically glued it back together,” Roach said.

Then Roach went out and finished the game with nine points, seven assists, six rebounds and one mouth guard. Texas needed every able body – even with sore gums -- in a game that had 16 lead changes, against an Iowa State team that had nothing to lose.

"The definition of fighting," Dylan Osetkowski called it, after scoring 20 points to lead Texas.

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The Longhorns had something to lose, by the way. A defeat at the hands of the last-place team in the Big 12 might have gotten the NCAA selection committee thinking. As it was, Texas carried on, as it has all season. The school's 18th bid in the past 20 years likely awaits on Sunday.

But it has not been the easiest journey for Smart, who has had to constantly juggle his lineup, and hold his locker room together through the shock of the news about Jones’ cancer.

“I’m trying to find the joy in it and the excitement in it and just embrace the challenge of it,” he said of the season. “From a coaching standpoint, the challenge is how can we go out there with this group and this lineup, and what can we figure out is the right way to push the right buttons to get them to play together and execute what we’re trying to do?

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"The reality is there’s been a couple of times we had to kind of reinvent ourselves in terms of who is out on the court."

This is his third season as Texas coach, and he has had to go off script a lot of nights.

"What these type of situations do is they make you kind of tap-dance a little bit as a coach. You can’t throw the same fastball that you threw when you had everybody healthy. Now that fastball is about 10 miles-and-hour slower, so you’ve got throw the curveball or changeup.”

The thing is, this is the time of the year a coach likes to have his heater, just as Smart did seven years ago when he led VCU to the Final Four.

“It’s some X’s and O’s, but it’s more in here,” he said, pointing to his head. “They’ve continued to believe. That’s the biggest key. You’ve got to believe. I don’t care who you play in the Big 12. If you’re worried and you look around and say, `We don’t have this guy, we don’t have that guy,’ it ain’t going to workout.”

Bamba might be back Thursday for Texas Tech. Smart won’t know until right before the game. Meanwhile, Roach will presumably have his mouth guard again. That kind of season in Texas.

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