DES MOINES, Iowa — After Texas wrapped up practice Saturday afternoon, Rodney Terry gathered his team in a circle with their arms around each other. All eyes on the bespectacled interim coach, waiting for the message to be delivered with that raspy Texan twang.
“Seize the moment,” Terry told his team. “Seize the moment, man. Live in the present, man. Enjoy this trip. Let’s do it.
That has been Terry’s message ever since Athletic Director Chris Del Conte selected him to take over from ousted head coach Chris Beard on December 12. And ahead of the most important game of his career, with his life’s work potentially hanging in the balance, Terry’s speech was as much for himself as it was for the players.
For a few frantic minutes Saturday night at Wells Fargo Arena, momentum was in danger of escaping the grasp of the second-seeded Longhorns. And if this was the Texas of yore, the one that had long failed to tap its wealth of blue-chip talent and abundant economic resources in any kind of March relevance, top-seeded Penn State (23-14) 10 would be the team continuing its dance into the Sweet 16.
Instead, with Texas’ NCAA Tournament run and Terry potentially getting the full-time job on the cliff, the Longhorns steeled themselves and delivered a season-saving performance. Powered by a steely outing from senior forward Dylan Disu, Texas overcame a late deficit to beat Penn State 71-66 in a tough second-round battle.
For the first time since 2008, Texas (28-8) is heading to the Sweet 16. They play next week in Kansas City, Mo.
“It’s not about me,” Terry replied politely when asked yet again about his employment status. “I am so happy and blessed to coach and work with this group. I wish it so much for them. I want it for our former players. I want it for our show. And, he admitted, “a little bit for myself”.
The looming meeting with Del Conte can wait at least another week, and maybe even two. Texas plans to make this drive all the way to Houston for the Final Four, and after throttle one of the best shooting teams in the nation amid a bold comeback, it certainly looks good enough to be in the bottom four in the standings.
Disu has blossomed into a star over the past month, and has once again been the beating heart in the middle for Texas.
Pflugerville’s 6-9 fourth-year opener opened the game with two of his now-signature inside shots as the Longhorns took a 9-4 lead. Disu deflated Penn State with his only postgame all night, using balletic footwork and supernatural touch to hit a program tournament record 14-of-20 shooting en route to a season-high 28 points with 10 rebounds.
“My teammates trusted and believed in me,” said Disu. “Marcus (Carr) came up to me and said, ‘We’re going to get you the ball, so take your time and go score.’ “
But the Nittany Lions were ready for this fight. They tied it at 13-13 with 7:28 left in the first half as both teams went through a sustained shooting slump.
Graduate guard Sir’Jabari Rice (13 points) invigorated the offense with a drive finish, and super senior forward Timmy Allen (nine points, 12 rebounds) huddled around an elbow screen for a jumper mid-range to get some separation. Texas finished the half on a 10-3 run, with Disu providing six points and graduate guard Marcus Carr (10 points) sinking a long 2 to beat the halftime buzzer.
The Longhorns threatened to break away several times in the second half. Though Texas clattered away from the deep — they missed their first 11 3s — and failed to score a single fast break point, the sharp defense kept star guard Jalen Pickett (11 points) from taking over and limited Penn State to a season-low eight made 3-of-28 attempts.
But after Rice finally busted Texas’ first triple to go up by seven with 8:32 remaining, the air in the arena seemed to change strangely. And the Longhorns, usually so nervous of steel, looked shaky.
After senior guard Myles Dread (12 points) sank straight 3s to spark a 10-0 run, turning Penn State’s deficit into a 58-55 lead, Terry signaled for a 30-second timeout.
“We’ve been here all year,” Terry told his team at the meeting. “Slow down and finish this game. We have it.”
More specifically, Disu had this.
He hopped into the lane for a finish to cut the deficit to one. After a Penn State turnover, he dropped a 13-footer across the net. With time running out on their next possession, Disu buried a turnaround jumper off the baseline to put Texas up three.
That snap gave Texas the lead it needed to sideline Penn State for good, even as senior guard Seth Lundy (11 points) converted a 4-point play with four seconds left to put the pressure back.
But the Longhorns simply relied on what Terry told them. The moment was theirs. Carr secured that with two free throws that sealed the game.
“Days like this are very long because you’re waiting and waiting to play,” Allen said of the 7:18 pm tip. “If we had thought about next week, we would have lost today. As RT said, it’s about staying present and feeling the moment, being involved in it. Dude, it doesn’t get any better than this.