KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Texas finally won the Big 12 Tournament championship.
Don’t try telling the Longhorns they didn’t earn it.
After getting a free pass through the semifinals when Kansas withdrew due to a positive COVID-19 test, and avoiding mighty Baylor once they reached the title game, embattled coach Shaka Smart’s bunch took advantage of the situation Saturday night with 91-86 victory over No. 12 Oklahoma State.
Matt Coleman poured in a career-high 30 points, Jericho Simms had a career-best 21 to go with 14 rebounds, and the third-seeded Longhorns stayed poised during the tense final minutes to win for the first time in seven trips to the finals.
“This is a gift to everyone, whether they’ve supported us or not,” said Smart, whose future at Texas was in question after last season. “And there’s a lot of people that have supported us, and we’re grateful for it. But the most important thing is our guys stayed connected, and I’m just happy they get to experience this feeling.”
It’s the first conference tournament title for Texas since winning the old Southwest Conference in 1995.
“We’ve earned just a little bit of respect from, well, anybody, you know?” Coleman said. “And not that we’re searching for respect. We knew in each other what we had, what we could do.”
Freshman star Cade Cunningham had 29 points to lead fifth-seeded Oklahoma State (20-8), including a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute, the second of them pulling his plucky team within 89-86 with 6 seconds to go.
The Cowboys immediately fouled Andrew Jones, and he calmly made two free throws to clinch the game.
Isaac Likekele added 13 points and Kalib Boone had 12 for the Cowboys, who fought past No. 10 West Virginia and the second-ranked Bears the previous two days to reach their first Big 12 Tournament title game since 2009.
“It’s so valuable having gone through this,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton said, “and the thing I will remind them of probably every day until we play, the next time we have this feeling losing a game, it’s over.
“We need to make sure we have an understanding of that.”
While the Cowboys looked weary early on, the Longhorns appeared fresh from their day off.
They tracked down every loose ball, were quicker in transition and spent most of the first 20 minutes above the rim with a series of alley-oop dunks. Sims and Kai Jones did most of the damage with their size inside, but the Texas backcourt that was so good in the quarterfinals provided plenty of balance.
Coleman and Co. helped the Longhorns (19-7) stretch a 29-25 lead into a 43-33 advantage by halftime.
“They were the aggressors the whole first half,” Boone said. “They looked like they wanted to win. We looked like we just wanted to hang in there for a second.”
It didn’t help Oklahoma State’s cause that it went 0 for 9 from beyond the arc.
Cunningham finally hit the Cowboys’ first 3-pointer in the opening minutes of the second half, and the All-Big 12 forward kept pouring it on. Cunningham added another moments later as Oklahoma State whittled an 11-point lead to 52-48. And when Texas stretched the lead again, he fed Anderson with a nifty pass to get within 66-59 with 8 minutes to go.
Foul trouble began to set in, though. Cowboys forward Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe was the first to foul out, and Anderson joined him on the bench when he picked up his fifth foul with Texas clinging to an 81-75 lead and 1:16 to go.
Of course it would be Coleman that helped put the game away.
After hitting the go-ahead foul shots with 1.8 seconds left in a 67-66 quarterfinal win over No. 20 Texas Tech, the senior guard calmly made two more to give the Longhorns an 83-75 lead with 1:15 to go in the championship.
The Longhorns held on from there for their seventh win over a Top 25 opponent this season.
“I can’t even explain it. Nobody knows how much it means for myself and for coach,” Coleman said. “Since the day we stepped on campus, we got the whole team here, I looked to my left and my right and said, `We’ve got some guys. We’ve got the makeup to do something special this season.”‘
Oklahoma State finished the season on a roll, winning eight of its last nine before the Big 12 title game with a pair of OT victories. The Cowboys beat six ranked teams in the past two weeks to build some NCAA Tournament momentum.
Texas is starting to hit its stride, too, after playing just six games in 35 days due to positive COVID-19 tests in January and February. All seven of the Longhorns’ losses this season have come against teams that were ranked at the time.
The teams will remain in Kansas City to learn their NCAA Tournament seeding – both should land around the 3-line in the bracket Sunday – and continue with daily COVID-19 testing before departing for Indianapolis.