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‘He’s a player’: Walk-on Avery Benson has become vital to Texas Tech’s basketball success

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NEW YORK — Chris Beard only needed to see Avery Benson play once before offering him a scholarship.

It was back when Beard was still the head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock, and it wasn’t because Benson had 30 in a game, or because he threw down a massive dunk, or because he hit a step-back three that only a future Big 12 player would hit.

“He went for a loose ball,” Beard said, “and lost about three teeth. He wouldn’t take himself out of the game. They cleaned the blood up, and I turned to Wes Flanigan and said, ‘offer that kid a scholarship.'”

I bring this up because Benson was one of the best players on the floor for Beard as his unranked Texas Tech team upset No. 1 Louisville, 70-57, in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday night. He finished the evening with 10 points and four boards to go along with a pair of spectacular blocks. He helped keep Louisville’s All-American forward Jordan Nwora in check; one of the aforementioned blocks came in the first half as Nwora went up to try and throw down a dunk. The 6-foot-4 Benson met him at the rim. Late in the second half, with Texas Tech nursing a ten point lead and two minutes left on the clock, he made a lunging attempt to jump a passing lane, forcing a turnover as he ended up in the lap of some poor soul on press row.

“Coach Beard’s hired to win ball-games. That’s what I gotta do to help him,” Benson said.

As assistant coach Brian Burg put it, “he truly epitomizes what Texas Tech is about.”

And from an outsider’s perspective, you’d think it’s easy to interpret what this means.

This is a program that prides themselves on being the underdog, on playing with a chip on their shoulder, on being the outsider that crashes the cool kid’s party. They’re the redneck outfit from Lubbock, Texas, that toughed their way to the national title game last season, and while that may not be the entire truth — Texas Tech’s resurgence the last two years came when they had multiple pros and talented upperclassmen being coach by one of the very best in the business — the second that program believes otherwise they lose their essence.

Of course the scrappy walk-on from Nowhere, Arkansas, that looks like an extra from Hell Or High Water fits in that culture.

“Avery’s a leader,” Chris Clarke, a grad transfer from Virginia Tech and arguably the best player on Texas Tech’s roster, said. “I didn’t really know too much about [Texas Tech] before I got here, but when I did they told me Avery was the toughest player. I’ve been expecting that since Day 1.”

But there is another way to interpret the point that Burg is trying to make.

Beard values culture and work ethic. He wants guys that play with a chip on their shoulder, definitely, but the trait that defines his teams is winning. He wants his program built on the ideal that winning matters above all else, that sacrificing for the betterment of the team is the most important part of being on a team, that everyone’s role in this fight is as important and valuable as the next’s.

“Make sure everybody from our head manager to our f—ing best player is just like that,” Clarke said, driving the point home by dapping up the head manager, who happened to be walking by, as he said it.

More to the point, the term “walk-on” is, as Benson put it, “is not in our dictionary of words.”

“I respect you saying he’s a walk-on,” Burg told me, slightly annoyed, “but he’s a player.”

Benson “epitomizes what Texas Tech is about” because he does his job as well as he possibly can and as hard as he possibly can. He sets the tone and the rest of the roster follows. As long as everyone does that, “we have everything here that we need to be successful,” Beard said.

That is what Texas Tech is all about.

Benson embodies this, and Beard knew it from the first time he watched him play.

“He’s one of my all-them favorite players. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites as a coach, but c’mon man,” he said. “Avery had all sorts of offers to play around the country, but when it all settled, he wanted to play in our culture and our program, and I was proud. It was one of the best phone calls that I got.”

Part of the reason for that is Benson had actual scholarship offers, just not from Texas Tech.

In Lubbock, he would be a walk-on. A preferred walk-on, a recruited walk-on, a walk-on that didn’t need to try out.

But a walk-on nonetheless.

“I work for a road construction company,” Benson said with a laugh after the game. Since he’s not on scholarship, he and his family have to pay his tuition. Part of the way he does that is by working a part-time job in Lubbock in the offseason. “I’m the ‘hey’ guy,” he said, as in, whenever they need something done – be it making a sign, rebuilding a trailer, whatever – they would yell, ‘Hey Avery!’

Here’s another anecdote to put this into context: Benson redshirted his freshman season, the 2017-18 season. He was allowed to travel with the team, but he wasn’t allowed to sit on the bench, not during the NCAA tournament. The Red Raiders reached the Elite Eight that year. At the regional semifinals in Boston, Benson sat in the family and friends section, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and cowboy boots directly across from the bench and directly behind where I was sitting on press row. Since he only had a ticket, he was not allowed on the floor with the team after a Sweet 16 win over Purdue.

So what did the team do?

They came to him, running into the stands to celebrate the win with the one member of their team that couldn’t be with them.

“Avery came [into my office] Tuesday, the day after the national championship game,” Beard said in the bowels of the Garden Tuesday night, “and I asked Avery if he wants to talk about [transferring], and he said, ‘No, coach. I’m staying the course. I’m not going anywhere.’ I told the coaches that day that this is one of the biggest things that will happen to us. We’ll recruit four and five star guys that will get all the ink, but what just happened with Avery Benson is big.”

Why?

“Our culture is everything. Our culture is what got us to the Final Four and won the Big 12. Players come and go, coaches come and go, but if culture stays the same, there’s a way to keep winning. The Patriots wide receivers change from time to time. Alabama gets a new quarterback, but they keep winning. We got a long way to go at Texas Tech basketball, but we like to think our culture is real.

“And having guys like Avery means the world to us.”

For a program that plays five freshmen, that has just three upperclassmen on the roster (two of whom are grad transfers) and that only returned three guys, including Benson, from last year’s national title team, having a guy that leads by example and sets the standard for all the new faces coming in matters more than you realize.

Beard understood that.

It’s part of what makes Benson one of his favorites.

“One thing I’ll always do is play my butt off for him,” Benson said. “That’s what he’ll do for me. He would take a bullet for me. That connection that me and him have. I will love him ’til the day I die.”

Diarra, Gordon lift Kansas State over No. 12 West Virginia

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MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) Cartier Diarra tied a career high with 25 points, Xavier Sneed added 16, Dujuan Gordon had a career high 15, and Kansas State held off No. 12 West Virginia 84-68 for their first win in Big 12 play this season on Saturday.

Kansas State (8-9, 1-4 Big 12) went up by as many as 23, but a 15-0 run by the Mountaineers cut the lead to eight in the second half, thanks in part to seven turnovers in four minutes by the Wildcats.

West Virginia (14-3, 3-2) would get as close as six, but the Wildcats held on and won by 16.

Miles McBride and Chase Harler paced the Mountaineers with 11 points each, Gabe Osabuohein had 10 as West Virginia lost their first game when the trailed at halftime.

Turnovers proved costly for West Virginia as they committed 18 and Kansas State scored 28 off those mistakes.

Kansas State shot 59% from the field and held the Mountaineers to 45%. The Wildcats hit nine 3’s while West Virginia had 41 bench points.

With two minutes left in the first half, it was a fastbreak dunk by Antonio Gordon assisted by Dujuan Gordon that got the crowd on their feet pushing the Wildcat lead to 11.

Kansas State held a 17-point lead at halftime and shot 58% in the first 20 minutes of play.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State: This was the best game played by the Wildcats all season. They needed a win like this one before taking on their in-state rival up next.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers had way too many turnovers and didn’t shoot the ball very well.

UP NEXT

Kansas State travels to Kansas on Tuesday.

West Virginia hosts Texas on Monday.

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For more AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Payton Pritchard three caps come-from-behind win for No. 8 Oregon at Washington (VIDEO)

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Oregon point guard Payton Pritchard hit one of the shots of the year on Saturday, as he buried this ridiculous, step-back three with the game tied in overtime to deliver a 64-61 win over Washington:

Pritchard finished with 22 points on 7-for-16 shooting, but it was the shots he hit that were more important that the number of points that he finished with.

There was a deep three late in regulation that helped the game get to overtime. There was a floater in the late with a minute left in overtime to put the Ducks ahead. There was the game-winner itself.

These are the moments that people remember when they talk about the National Player of the Year.

 

Dotson and Azubuike lead No. 6 Kansas over Texas 66-57

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Devon Dotson’s left hip looks fine. And that’s good news for No. 6 Kansas.

Dotson returned to the lineup after sitting out a game with a hip pointer injury and gave the Jayhawks a big late 3-pointer and free throws down the stretch to lead Kansas over Texas 66-57 on Saturday.

Dotson scored 21 points, including the final seven of the game for the Jayhawks. His long 3-pointer with 2:49 put Kansas ahead by eight and four straight free throws in the final 39 seconds closed out the win.

“If we played without him today, we would not have won,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Dotson played nearly 39 minutes and afterward said he felt good.

“It felt great,” Dotson said. “Coming in, there were no restrictions. When I’m out there playing, I have no excuses. I’m getting treatment. It’s gonna be fine.”

Udoka Azubuike scored 17 points and a burst from him early in the second half allowed Kansas (14-3, 4-1 Big 12) to take the lead.

Kansas closed the game with a 12-3 run that started with consecutive baskets from Marcus Garrett. The Jayhawks got a big break when Garrett was initially called for a charge, but the foul was quickly reversed. The layup counted, Garrett made the free throw and Jayhawks led 59-54 before Dotson closed it out.

Garrett had a scary moment earlier when he landed hard after an off-balance shot attempt. He stayed on the floor for several minutes and then briefly went to the Kansas locker room. He returned a few minutes later and made the big plays.

“That was a remarkable recovery,” Self said. “I think (the fall) scared him more than anything else.”

Dotson’s 3-pointer was just the second of the game for Kansas, the best-shooting team in the Big 12 from long range. Kansas attempted only 10, opting instead for Dotson and Garrett to drive or to push the ball inside to Azubuike, who was locked in a battle under the basket with Texas’ Jericho Sims.

Sims scored a career-high 20 points for the Longhorns (12-5, 2-3) and tied the game at 54-all. Texas gave him little help from the outside. After averaging 12.5 3-pointers in their previous two games, the Longhorns were just 6 of 20 on Saturday.

“Those two (Sims and Azubuike) canceled each other out,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “”Their guards were the biggest difference in the game.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: Saturday was the eighth time the Jayhawks made four or fewer 3-pointers and the third time in Big 12 play. Isaiah Moss, who started in Dotson’s place against Oklahoma and made six, took and made only one in 32 minutes against the Longhorns.

“Its going to catch up to us,” Self said. “We were fortunate today. We’ve got to be a team that knock (them) down. We’re not going to shoot as many at most.”

Texas: The Longhorns let what would’ve been a big upset get away. A win could have changed a lot for the Longhorns going forward, but instead Texas now has two home losses in its first five Big 12 games. The inconsistency of the 3-point shooting continues to be baffling. In all three Big 12 losses, Texas has made six or fewer from long range.

“This a game you’ve got to seize, that you’ve got to grab,” Smart said.

DEFENSIVE CLAMPDOWN

Texas guard Andrew Jones scored eight consecutive points for Texas in the first half in a 13-1 run that opened an eight-point lead. Jones didn’t score again and missed all four of his shots in the second half.

Smart lamented that Texas didn’t build a bigger lead. The Jayhawks pulled the game back within six by halftime.

“For it to be six at halftime, that’s a good half, but the way that we defended,” Smart said. “But if that lead is 10 or 12, that’s a big difference.”

FAN SCARE

The game had an extended break in the second half when a fan collapsed behind the Texas bench during a timeout. Emergency officials had to move several chairs off the Texas bench to take her out of the arena across the court on a stretcher.

Texas officials didn’t release any further information on the incident or the women’s condition.

UP NEXT

Kansas hosts Kansas State on Tuesday.

Texas plays at No. 12 West Virginia on Monday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Payne’s career game helps Florida beat No. 4 Auburn 69-47

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Omar Payne had the best game of his college career, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and led Florida to a 69-47 victory over No. 4 Auburn on Saturday.

Payne, a freshman from Kissimmee, was widely considered an afterthought in Florida’s highly touted recruiting class. Against the Tigers, he looked like a future lottery pick.

The 6-foot-10 forward dominated in the paint, scoring on tip-ins, putbacks and layups, and creating a mismatch nightmare for Auburn (15-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference). His three-point play, which came after an offensive rebound, put Florida (12-5, 4-1) up by 14 with a little more than 4 minutes to play.

The Gators sent the home crowd into a late frenzy – and to the exits – with a 14-0 run that included 3-pointers by Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson and Kerry Blackshear Jr. Fans chanted “over-rated” in the closing minutes.

Locke and Blackshear finished with 11 points apiece for the Gators, who haven’t lost at home to Auburn since 1996. Blackshear added a season-high-tying 16 rebounds.

The Tigers have lost two in a row since starting 15-0.

Danjel Purifoy was the only player in double figures for Auburn, which shot 25.5% from the field. He had 10 points.

The Tigers struggled out of the gate, missing 15 of their first 16 shots. But Florida failed to take advantage of Auburn’s sluggishness, turning the ball over far too often for coach Mike White’s liking.

Auburn kept it close thanks to being perfect (10 for 10) from the free throw line.

The Gators led by five at the break and quickly built a double-digit lead coming out of the locker room. Nembhard, Johnson and Blackshear made consecutive baskets and then Payne followed with a putback and a layup that pushed the lead to 38-27.

Florida looked like it might really pull away a few minutes later, but Samir Doughty answered with back-to-back 3-pointers. Auburn’s leading scorer missed all four shots in the opening 20 minutes and didn’t record a single positive statistic.

BIG PICTURE

Auburn: The Tigers won’t win many, if any, games shooting like this. Purifoy made 3 of 11 shots and Doughty was 3 of 12 from the field.

Florida: The Gators finally look like a top-10 team. They opened the season ranked No. 6 but lost two of their first four games. White tweaked the offense, and the results are starting to show.

UP NEXT:

Auburn: Hosts South Carolina on Wednesday. The Tigers have lost four of the last six in the series.

Florida: Plays at LSU on Tuesday. The Gators have won four of the last five meetings, including two in overtime.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25