NEW YORK, NY - It wasn’t meant to be. After watching Lipscomb rally from an 11 point deficit, and see the Frogs’ get within five, there was a buzz in the building that said “maybe, just maybe”. But TCU Basketball couldn’t score when it counted, and Texas did just enough to keep a comfortable margin down the stretch and earn a spot opposite the Bisons in Thursday night’s NIT Championship game.
Things started slowly for the Horned Frogs, as they scored a scant 17 points in the first 20 minutes of play. Maybe it was the lighting, maybe it was tired legs, maybe it was the Texas defense - but whatever it was, it ended in a 7-25 start from the floor. It wasn’t much better for Texas, who missed some open threes and some easy layups, but did enough to bolt out to a 31-17 advantage. Led by Kerwin Roach, who came off the bench to score 13 points on 6-8 shooting, the Horns shot 41% from the field, got six second chance points, and made three three pointers to the Frogs’ zero, Texas took control midway through the first period and didn’t look back for the most part.
Without Jaxson Hayes in the lineup for UT, it appeared Kevin Samuel could have a big game. But the freshman center never really got rolling, scoring just two points in the first half - a dunk that would be his only made shot of the game. He did pull down 12 rebounds and only picked up one foul, but in a night where few players in purple could score, he wasn’t able to do much damage for the Frogs either. Another leading scorer for TCU, Kouat Noi, was kept out of the books through the opening 20 minutes as well, finishing with seven points on the night. He and Desmond Bane combined to go just 2-12 from deep as the Frogs shot a paltry 4-21 from beyond the arc, a performance that clogged the lane and allowed the Texas defense to collapse passing lanes and prevent one of the better playmakers in the game - Alex Robinson - from doing much. Robinson, who holds just about every meaningful assist record for TCU, had just one in his final game; TCU as a team had only seven against 11 turnovers. For an offense predicated on movement and sharing the ball, that’s a galling statistic. “At times we over passed, at times we didn’t pass. It was just a bad combination,” Jamie Dixon said.
The word that Dixon kept referring to was ‘rhythm’, as in the Frogs had none of it. “Offensively, I did not see this coming. I just don’t know why we just looked so out of rhythm, is the phrase I use, because at times we overpassed and then at times we didn’t pass, and it just was a bad combination. If you pass up open shots, that’s bad offense, too, and that’s where I thought we found ourselves a lot of times.” And that may have had to do with a lack of confidence - when you shoot 28% from the field and 19% from three, it tends to make you hesitate before pulling the trigger.
TCU and Texas both had two players in double figures - Desmond Bane and Alex Robinson went for 11 and 12 respectively, while Roach went off for 22 and Dylan Ostekowski had a relatively quiet 13. Roach really controlled the game on both ends of the floor though, using his speed and athleticism to get to the rim at will and pester Robinson and Davis on defense. Every Frog that played scored - highlighted by RJ Nembhard’s five points and two assists that came during TCU’s mini run in the second half that pulled them within five.
But for every blow the Frogs were able to strike, Texas and Shaka Smart had an answer, and the momentum TCU built was short-lived in a flurry of turnovers and missed defensive rotations.
As much as the loss hurts, and it will sting the players and the program for a while, it’s not what Dixon wants his squad to remember about the year. He made that clear in the locker room post game. “I told our guys afterwards, I wanted them to focus on our 23 wins this year and how they battled through a lot of adversity and played through most of the conference with seven guys, sometimes six guys, and came up with 23 wins. So I want them to remember that.” Alex Robinson agrees. “The loss -- it really hurt, obviously. I’m just proud of our guys. We fought hard all season. I thought we fought hard this game. It’s just one of those things, unfortunately -- [but] we fought hard.”
The loss ends the storied careers of Alex Robinson and JD Miller, two seniors who helped the TCU Basketball program turn the corner. It also brings to question Jamie Dixon’s future - who is rumored to be the top candidate to take over the UCLA Basketball program. Dixon was predictably coy about his future, sticking to the line he has been delivering since January. “I really don’t talk about it. The job -- just don’t talk about that, no point, rumors out there. I’m just trying to get over this loss right now.”
He won’t be alone in that.