DES MOINES, Iowa — The funny thing about the past is that if you’re young enough, it doesn’t exist. A child cannot be marked by memories he doesn’t have. A team cannot be haunted by ghosts it has never seen.
So when a Texas team filled with relative newcomers stumbled into the moment of peril every longtime fan saw coming to Wells Fargo Arena Saturday, the Longhorns weren’t bound by history, because they were oblivious to it.
Little did Dylan Disu, unwittingly impersonating Hakeem Olajuwon with a float, know that this was the moment when everything was supposed to fall apart. Timmy Allen and Marcus Carr had no idea this was the time Texas was bound to blow up another opportunity. Sir’Jabari Rice, blissfully unconnected with a decade and a half of NCAA tournament failures, carried no monkeys on his back.
“It’s a whole new generation,” said Texas sophomore Tyrese Hunter. “Fifteen years is a long time ago.”
And with a cold, misery-defying finish, all of the Longhorns’ disappointments during those 15 years might as well fade away. Led by a coach who exemplified their combination of wit and composure, and a revelation of a performance from Disu, the Longhorns beat Penn State 71-66 to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2008.
“Whatever happened in the past,” said Allen, who like the other top five Longhorn scorers moved from another program in the past two years, “is the past.”
And this time, Texas made sure to leave it there. They left the past in the past thanks to Disu, whose improbable late-season surge culminated with a career-high 28 points, including three straight field goals down the stretch to erase a 58-55 deficit and give the Longhorns the lead for good .
They left the past in the past thanks to Rodney Terry, the longtime assistant who inherited what should have been a disaster when the former Texas coach was suspended and later fired after a domestic violence arrest in December. For three months, he had a plan, and when his players faced the Saturday portion of the game when so many other Texas teams dissolved in previous NCAA tournaments, they acted like they knew exactly what to do.
“Through all these experiences, there’s a calmness, there’s a balance to this team,” Terry said. “These guys had stone faces.”
They were unmoved, at least until it came time for them to jump up and down and hug the coach to whom they proclaimed their undying devotion, and the man who should have had the “interim” taken out of his job title before the team plane returned to Austin.
“How could you not love RT?” Disu asked.
“RT is the man,” Rice said. “I thank God, but I thank him, above all.”
How did Terry do it? In December, he started “not trying to reinvent the wheel,” as Longhorns assistant Chris Ogden put it. Terry kept a system in place, but he tweaked it, little by little, and before the Longhorns knew it, his personality was their own.
“He’s one of the best human beings in the basketball world, and I mean that,” Ogden said. “He IS just a really good person.”
And all of this is fine, but the Longhorns wouldn’t have won Saturday if Terry couldn’t coach too. The Nittany Lions have boiled things down to a possession-for-possession game, which contradicts the way Texas has been playing lately, but Terry was ready for it.
And at the end of the night, the Longhorns somehow prevailed in a game where they had no points on the break and only made a poor 3-pointer. How the hell does it happen in a basketball game in 2023, when winning without doing 3sis is like living without a cell phone?
“It’s unthinkable,” said former Longhorns guard Lance Blanks, a close friend of Terry’s who watched Saturday’s game from ringside. “But this whole season has been unthinkable.”
Not to Terry, though. He never made excuses for a staff working its way through a midseason coaching change, and never indulged in questions about why he wasn’t named Texas’ permanent head coach, and continued to downplay the notion Saturday night that the Longhorns’ breakthrough was about him.
But she couldn’t help but flex, if only a little. For nine years in the 2000s, he was the Longhorns’ lead assistant during an era in which the Longhorns enjoyed regular March success. After spending some time as head coach at Fresno State and UNLV, he returned prior to last season. So when people tried to dismiss a second-round win as a big deal on Saturday, he grinned.
“I’m used to Sweet 16s in Texas, to be honest with you,” Terry said. “I’m not bragging, but when I was here before, we were in the Sweet 16 quite a bit.”
So Sunday had some history in mind. And even if his players considered almost nothing of the past before the last year or so?
They knew one thing for sure.
“Everything that’s happened up to this point,” Allen said, “put us right where we needed to be.”
Ghosts never had a chance.