AUSTIN, Texas — Fourth-ranked Texas was without three key players for Saturday’s 82-67 Big 12 Conference win over Kansas State at the Erwin Center as forwards Greg Brown, Brock Cunningham and Kai Jones weren’t available to play. The school didn’t provide a reason for those three Longhorns missing the game, but they weren’t dressed out weren’t on the bench for Texas (11-2, 5-1 Big 12) as head coach Shaka Smart and Co. rebounded nicely from a 79-77 loss to No. 15 Texas Tech on Wednesday.
“We knew we had to turn the page, the guys were really mature with the approach on Thursday in practice and our film session and on Friday, we find out we’re going to be without a few guys,” Smart said. “It was unlike any other season, which is how the season’s been, but I thought the guys tonight really executed what we were trying to do.”
Next up for the Longhorns is a road trip to Iowa State (2-7, 0-5), a game set for Wednesday, Jan. 20 at Hilton Coliseum and it’s a game where they’ll be shorthanded once again, assuming the game gets played. The Cyclones were recently forced to pause basketball activities due to COVID-19 issues within the program, but even if Texas can play the game, they’ll once again be without the three Longhorns who missed the rout of K-State (5-9, 1-5).
“I don’t even know because they didn’t play today, Iowa State, so I’ve got to get with (associate athletics director) Arthur Johnson and figure out what the status of that game is,” Smart said. “Those guys, if we are going to Ames, those guys will not be going. I guess that’s the main thing I can say is they’re not available.”
Brown, Cunningham and Jones are three of the team’s top four forwards along with Jericho Sims, who was available and in the starting lineup on Saturday. Sims scored 14 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished out an assist and recorded a steal in 24 minutes, but the story of the game was the way Kamaka Hepa stepped up and filled the void alongside Sims created by Brown’s absence with 15 points, three rebounds, one assist, one steal and one blocked shot in 26 minutes of action.
Hepa enjoyed a 5-for-8 night from beyond the arc, helping the Longhorns to a 12-for-31(38.7 percent) showing from 3-point range. Originally slated to redshirt for the 2020-21 season before the NCAA freezing eligibility for winter sports athletes essentially provided Hepa with a free season as far as his clock is concerned, he played a total of nine minutes in three games (hasn’t played since a 77-74 home win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 20) before erupting for a monster outing on Saturday when Texas needed the 6-foot-9-inch, 220-pound former four-star prospect (No. 58 overall in the 247Sports Composite rankings in 2018) transfer the juice he brings to the bench cheering on his teammates to the court in a bad way.
“I thought about it like any other moment,” Hepa said after trying his single-game career-high in scoring and setting a new personal best for single-game 3-pointers made. “Obviously, I was a little bit more excited about tonight just because I was able to be out there with my teammates on the court. Just because of my situation and our team situation this year I don’t necessarily get to do that too much, but I enjoy every second with my team and I enjoy embodying my role and it felt really good to just be out there with my teammates playing basketball.”
Even without Brown (11.8 points, eight rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game), Cunningham (1.9 points, 3.4 rebounds per game) and Jones (8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds per game) on the court, the Longhorns finished even in the rebounding battle (34-34), turned seven offensive rebounds into 12 second-chance points, blocked four shots, scored 26 points in the paint and managed to get 12 points off of the bench with Jase Febres (six points, three assists, five rebounds, two blocks and one steal in 22 minutes) getting half of those on two 3-pointers in his season debut after undergoing microfracture knee surgery last spring.
Even though K-State is shorthanded and had six players log at least 26 minutes on Saturday, the Longhorns won convincingly without three of their biggest guns. It helped to get a game-high 19 points from Andrew Jones (7-of-12 shooting, 4-for-8 from 3-point range, six rebounds, two steals, one assist and one block) with Courtney Ramey scoring 14 points on a 5-for-7 night from the floor along with a season-high nine assists and three rebounds, but Hepa and Sims stepping up and Febres providing a lift in his first minutes of the season helped Texas move on from the first loss of conference play in emphatic fashion.
“That’s really the way a team is supposed to be, but I think, obviously, we’ve learned over the years not to take that for granted,” Smart said. “These guys all come in here as very highly-touted and highly-regarded individual players They all have very big individual goals, which they should, but we ask them to come together around a common cause. We can only have five on the court at any given time. We knew with those three guys out we were going to need major contributions from some guys that hadn’t played as much.
“The more guys you have like that, that have a passion for each other, the more fun it is and the more successful you are.”