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The Rise: Vol. 3

A leader rises in the kiln of a struggling 3-3 stretch

West Virginia v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

Coming off a tough loss against the Oklahoma Sooners led by an explosive second half from Trae Young, the Red Raiders were due for a bounce-back game. Unfortunately, their next game would not be an easy one. #2 West Virginia would be coming into Lubbock owning a 15-1 record that included wins over #15 Virginia and #7 Oklahoma. The Mountaineers were led by their two senior guards Jevon Carter and Dexter Miles - both of which were underrated out of HS but were now shredding the Big 12 with their scoring abilities. The defense that let Trae Young loose in the second half would now need to find a way to slow down two players for the entire game. Zach Smith would again not play in this game due to a broken foot. The Red Raiders desperately needed a scoring punch outside of Evans - and they would get it.

There was no hot start for Texas Tech this game. The combination of West Virginia’s always good defense and the scoring punch of Jevon Carter would help the Mountaineers control the first half. The two young stars of Davide Moretti and Jarrett Culver were nowhere to be found. Keenan Evans was doing all he could to keep the team in the game, but the Red Raiders headed into the break trailing 31-38. Someone needed to show up, to provide a spark, and they would find it in an unexpected place: Brandone Francis.

Heading into this match-up, the junior Francis had only one double-digit scoring game under his belt. It was when he was at Florida and scored 10 on North Carolina A&T. Safe to say the stakes were a little higher now, facing the #2 team in the nation. Francis provided something off the bench that would become routine for him as a Red Raider - leadership, scoring, and toughness. He never seemed fazed by big moments. In fact, they turned him into the best version of himself. Francis came off the bench in this game and scored 17 points, making him the only other player outside of Evans in double-digits. Perhaps more importantly, he was incredibly efficient and shot the ball at 83%. West Virginia’s 11 point lead with just under 13 minutes would soon be evaporated after Zhaire Smith threw down an alley-oop. The rowdy USA crowd helped the Red Raiders go on a 12-2 run to trim the lead down. Niem Stevenson sank 2 free throws at the two-minute mark that would give Texas Tech the lead for the rest of the game. Despite a 28 point game from WVU’s Carter, Tech would go on to win the game 72-71. Their first top-10 match-up win ever and one that filled the court with storming students.

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Texas Tech
Keenan Evans (12) inbounds the ball against West Virginia Mountaineers guard Jevon Carter (2) in the second half at United Supermarkets Arena
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Now with a full head of steam, Texas Tech headed into Austin to face a talented, but beatable Longhorn team. Texas was an interesting team. There were the two juniors - Dylan Osetkowski and Kerwin Roach Jr. - who offered not only leadership but scoring. Top 50 prospect Matt Coleman had provided a really nice scoring boost as the team’s primary ball-handler. But the leader of this team was no surprise - no. 4 prospect Mo Bamba. Ahead of the Texas Tech match up, Bamba was proving his potential as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Bamba was averaging a double-double coming into this game. More impressive (and terrifying) was his 4.5 BPG. This pace would be enough for him to end up ranking third in blocks per game in the Big 12’s history.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Nashville
Mohamed Bamba #4 of the Texas Longhorns blocks a shot by Jordan Caroline #24 of the Nevada Wolf Pack
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kerwin Roach warmed up for this game not expecting to play. A fractured hand had him sidelined for 2 games, and even if he was gonna play in this game, it wasn’t going to be for long. Yet as the Longhorns were heading out of the tunnel, Roach got the go-ahead from the trainer that he was good to go. This made a Texas Tech win much more complicated. Roach sank his first shot, a corner three, with 7 minutes to go in the first half and was electric for the rest of the game. He would be the games leading scorer with 20 points. Both teams battled in a defensive heavy first half that ended with the Longhorns up 29-24. Bamba was settled underneath the basket and had two early blocks. Texas came out of the break hot, building their lead to 13. The Red Raiders, led by Jarrett Culver, began to force turnovers and got within four. They were again relying on a second-half rally to get a win. Eric Davis Jr, who had been essentially silent to this point, hit two big threes under 4 minutes to push the lead to 10. The deficit was too much to overcome, and the Longhorns had defeated the Red Raiders 67-58.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Texas
The Texas Longhorns bench reacts against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the second half at the Frank Erwin Center
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Raiders had now lost 2 out of their last 3 games. A bounce-back game was now not only wanted but necessary. The team needed a win to keep their place in the Top 10. There wouldn’t be a better chance than their next game at Iowa State. Texas Tech entered Ames as an 8 point favorite. The Cyclones were a relatively well-rounded team but lacked a real scoring punch outside of their guard duo of Donovan Jackson and Lindell Wigginton. This game should have been an easy win, but welcome to college basketball.

A Red Raider team that once won with its fast starts was now being killed by slow ones. From the jump, the Cyclones controlled the game. Once leading by 13 in the first half, Tech managed to get it within 8 going into halftime. The offense for Texas Tech was non-existent, scoring just 25 in the first half. Whatever words Coach Beard had to say at half clearly hit home, and the Red Raiders went on a run that earned them an early second-half lead. The Cyclones weren’t going down without a fight though. They went on two deep runs led by big shots from Nick Weiler-Babb and Lindell Wigginton. What once was a Tech lead had now been smothered by a 13-1 run from Iowa State. When the Cyclones were up by 20 with less than 7 minutes to go, it was clear what was about to happen: The 8th best team in the nation was going to get blown out by the worst team in their conference. The Cyclones had 5 players in double-digits compared to Tech’s one - who was Zhaire Smith with 10. An Iowa State defense that let TCU score 96 on them (in regulation) the game before had now held the Red Raiders to just 52. The Cyclones won by 18, and the slide continued for Texas Tech.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Iowa State
Brandone Francis (1) looks to pass against the Iowa State Cyclones during the first half at James H. Hilton Coliseum
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

This season was beginning to look a little eerie. Maybe the flashes of success earlier in the season were just that - flashes. Bright, but brief. The good starts that helped them build huge leads had vanished. They had now fallen 6 spots in the rankings and were down to #14. Their promising 3-0 conference start where they hadn’t trailed in a game was now a daunting 4-3 record. Their standing in the conference was quickly slipping. To get a win, they would need to overcome Oklahoma State and the always explosive Jeffrey Carroll.

Surprise - the Red Raiders again struggled to start the game. The last 10 minutes of the first half would be some of the worst basketball Tech played that season. The offense shot the ball at less than 10%. The defense allowed 8 unanswered points within an 18-5 run to close out the half. Tech went into the break trailing 37-25. They would again be relying on a second-half run to win the game, something they hadn’t managed to pull off. Yet.

Leadership and experience help win close games, and no one’s was more valuable to this team than Keenan Evans’. Stuck in a scoring rut the past 3 games, Evans was averaging just 12.7 PPG on 36.7% shooting from the field and an abysmal 13% from deep. In the first half of this game, he scored only 4 points on 25% shooting. Scoring ruts are normal and happen to everyone, but the team desperately needed Evans for their success. The Red Raiders needed that presence and scoring in the clutch. Evans was ready to do that, starting now. His second half was a completely different story, scoring 22 points on 67% shooting. Jarrett Culver - now in the starting lineup - also helped the team by scoring 25 points. The punch of Culver and Evans was too much for the Cowboys - Tech won it 75-70.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Texas Tech
Jarrett Culver (23) takes a jump shot against the Oklahoma State Cowboys
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Finally - back on track. Now the Red Raiders would get a break from the grit of conference play, but they weren’t headed for a vacation. It was time for the Big 12/SEC Challenge where Texas Tech would be heading to Columbia to face South Carolina. The Gamecocks were led by their two-way threat of F Chris Silva. Silva had the ability to post you up, use an up-and-under move to get around you, or sink a post-fade. Despite the post-centric offense, he scored with ease and came into this matchup averaging 14.7 PPG. He was also an extremely gifted defender, averaging 1.2 BLK but providing a lot of value outside the box score. Enough value to earn him SEC Defensive POTY that year and 2 SEC All-Defensive teams by the end of his collegiate career.

South Carolina wasn’t a team that Tech could fall into a rut against. The Gamecocks already had two comeback wins that season which included a 14 point deficit against Kentucky and 11 points against Florida. The Red Raiders would need to build a solid lead and sustain it the entire game. For the first time in a few games, they managed to build that early lead. Evans led the way with some great scoring and was supported by Zhaire Smith. Then, with 5 minutes left before halftime, the team went ice cold. Their 8 point lead was shrunk to 4 at the break. Just a few minutes into the second half their lead was lost. With a little over 6 minutes to go, Texas Tech trailed by 5. It was over. They had done it again. Another blown game, another disappointing loss, another piece of evidence this team wasn’t a contender. That was a common mentality. Not for Keenan Evans.

For the next 6 minutes, this was his game. He saw an opportunity and took it. In those 6 minutes, he would score 8 of the team’s 9 points. These included a three to give Tech the lead with under 2 minutes to go and a 3 point play in the final minute. The second half from Evans was incredible. 5 makes on 7 shots and 8 free throws were enough for him to end the game with 31. Evans firepower in combination with an outstanding Tech defense that held USC to just 5 points in the final 6 minutes allowed the Red Raiders to grab a 70-63 win.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at South Carolina
Keenan Evans (12) drives to the basket against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half at Colonial Life Arena
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Keenan Evans had now solidified himself as one of the nation’s premier clutch performers. Next week he’ll back this up with the biggest shot of his career.