KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Players rushed off the Texas bench, past interim coach Rodney Terry and to midfield inside the T-Mobile Center, eager to get their hands on the trophy that crowned them Big 12 champions.
After the season they had, who could blame them?
It started under the darkest of clouds with their standout coach, Chris Beard, being fired after an incident at home. Terry was given the job and the tall task of leading the Longhorns through a grueling schedule, and what many call one of the toughest conferences in college basketball history.
But after finishing second to Kansas in the regular season, the seventh-ranked Longhorns proved they are champions in their own right Saturday night, topping the third-ranked Jayhawks 76-56 in the Big 12 final.
Dylan Disu overcame early foul trouble to score 18 points and was the MVP of the tournament. Marcus Carr and Sir’Jabari Rice, who were also on the all-tournament team, each had 17. And nearly 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 that has been as challenging in terms of adversity or staying on course,” Terry said, his voice long gone hoarse. “There were no free nights. We knew this tournament would also be difficult, but we were excited about it, because of the approach of these guys and their attitudes – they wanted to be champions and they achieved that.”
After more than two decades without a Big 12 Tournament title, the Longhorns (26-8) have won two of their last three, and likely finish with the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament next week with their appearance in Kansas City.
“You only carry this win for one night,” said Brock Cunningham, who was on the 2021 title team that was then bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “We’re going to win tonight and then it’s back to work.”
The Jayhawks once again played without Hall of Fame coach Bill Self, who went to the emergency room for an undisclosed medical procedure before the quarterfinals. Self’s longtime assistant and acting coach, Norm Roberts, said afterward that he hopes Self will be back when they begin their NCAA title defense next week.
Jalen Wilson scored 24 points and Joseph Yesufu, pressured into the starting lineup by injuries, finished with 11 for the Jayhawks (27-7), who have won 13 of their previous 16 trips to the Big 12 final.
The question now is whether the defending national champions did enough before Saturday night to earn the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament, and with it, a favorable trip through Kansas City in the regional round.
“Give Texas a lot of credit. They played really well,” Roberts said. “They are very athletically built; we knew that. Quickly. They have really good offensive players. I thought we did a good job early in the game, but then we missed a bunch of bunts, layups and putbacks that could have kept us in the game, and then fatigue took over.”
Both teams were without starters due to injuries on Saturday night – Kevin McCullar Jr. for the Jayhawks, Timmy Allen for the Longhorns – but there was still plenty of star power on display inside the T-Mobile Center.
Wilson, the league’s player of the year, kept the Jayhawks afloat during the first half. He scored 17 points, more than half of the total, while banging the glass and even picking up a steal.
Texas, meanwhile, relied on depth and balance to forge a 39-33 halftime lead. He had to after losing Disu, a revelation in the previous two rounds, with two fouls less than eight minutes into the game.
“Everybody on the field was doing their part,” Carr said later, “cutting, moving, knocking down shots.”
When Disu returned, the big man immediately went to work. He had several baskets in the opening minutes, and a nearly five-minute scoring drought by Kansas allowed the Longhorns to extend their lead to 53-41 with 12 minutes left.
By that point, the 500 or so Texas fans sounded like 15,000. And the 15,000 or so Kansas fans were dead quiet.
The knockout blow came moments later, when Disu put in a Rice layup and Arterio Morris added an ally-oop dunk. That pushed the Longhorns’ lead to 70-50 with 4 1/2 minutes left, and while Roberts finally called a timeout to slow the offense, it came too late to make a difference.
“I don’t think we really thought 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, dealt with back spasms that flared up again during the semifinal win over Iowa State; he watched from the bench in sweat. The Longhorns were without Allen for the entire tournament as the veteran leader rested from a calf 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 3-pointers. And they rarely went without a basket for more than a few minutes, preventing Kansas from getting its crowd into the game.
Kansas was forced to use different lineups without McCullar, giving extra minutes to freshman MJ Rice. The Jayhawks rarely seemed in sync, and that was evident when Dajuan Harris Jr. turned the ball over an unusual four times.
The Longhorns and Jayhawks are headed to the NCAA Tournament. On Sunday evening, they will find out who, when and where they will play in the first round.
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No. 7 Texas topped No. 3 Kansas 76-56 for the Big 12 title originally appeared on NBCSports.com