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The Rise: Vol. 5

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Just as the Red Raiders begin to hit their stride, disaster strikes.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Baylor Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

In last weeks volume, we saw Kennan Evans take matters into his own hands. Not only was it a career high 38 points for Evans, but he also hit the game winning shot to knock off Texas. If Texas Tech wanted to continue its recent conference success, it would need to keep seeing more of Keenan. His first opportunity to sustain the recent success would be in Fort Worth against the TCU Horned Frogs.

Texas Tech had not yet faced TCU this season. The Horned Frogs were led by their senior forwards Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams, who averaged a combined 28.2 points per game and 14.4 rebounds per game that season. The young Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi were also providing some valuable offense.

From the tip, it was clear Texas Tech had control of this one. For the first time in multiple games, the Red Raiders had managed to establish an early lead. But it wasn’t due to the scoring of Keenan Evans. In fact, by the time Evans made his first shot, Texas Tech was leading 37-18. The early domination was led by the sharpshooting of Jarrett Culver, who went 4-for-5 behind the arc in the first half. As the last ten seconds of the first half winded down, the Red Raiders forced a turnover and Keenan Evans made yet another buzzer beating shot. Texas Tech went into the break leading 48-24, a lead they wouldn’t let go of. Zhaire Smith also tallied 12 points, and the bench combined for 25 points. With Keenan Evans ending the game at 17 points, the scoring punch was too much for the Horned Frogs to overcome. Texas Tech gets the road win, 83-71.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Texas Christian
TCU Horned Frogs guard Desmond Bane (1) passes the ball past Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Keenan Evans (12)
Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Now tied with Kansas at the top of the Big 12, Texas Tech headed back to Lubbock to face one of the worst teams in the conference, Iowa State. Although they were on opposite ends of the standings, the Cyclones had already beaten the Red Raiders by nearly 20 points in a match up earlier this season. If they wanted redemption, Texas Tech would need to score more than the 52 they did earlier that season.

The game stayed close for nearly the entire first half. The Cyclones generated their offense through Cameron Lard, while Texas Tech was seeing a breakout performance from Zhaire Smith. With Iowa State inching closer, Smith took over the game leading the Red Raiders on a 12-2 run. The run was good enough to give Texas Tech a seven point lead heading into the half.

After the break, a familiar foe returned: a second half rally from the opposition. In the first two minutes of the second half, Iowa State scored seven straight. Just over six minutes into the half, the game was within one. While it looked like the Cyclones were turning this into their game, Zhaire Smith had other plans.

This dunk helped electrify the crowd, helping carry the Red Raiders to the finish line. Zhaire Smith was on his way to a career night, scoring 21 points on 87.5 percent shooting. A 15 point lead with less than three minutes to go should’ve been enough to secure a win, but that didn’t stop Keenan Evans from scoring the team’s last eight points. The Smith-Evans-Culver trio combined for 52 points, which left Iowa State with no chance. The Red Raiders win it, 76-58.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Texas Tech
Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Zhaire Smith (2) goes in for a slam dunk against the Iowa State Cyclones
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The seventh ranked Red Raiders now headed into Manhattan to face the Kansas State Wildcats. Texas Tech made short change of the Wildcats earlier this season, beating them by 16 in Lubbock. Now on the road, a closer game could’ve been anticipated.

The only way to describe the first half is by using a phrase near and dear to Chris Beard’s heart: a dog fight. Neither team could get the ball through the net consistently. The largest lead either team saw was a six point K-State lead early into the game. A Jarrett Culver three with under a minute left ended the ugly first half tied at 27.

Texas Tech came out of the gates much more aggressive than they did in the first. Keenan Evans began attacking the lane, either getting an easy layup or drawing a foul that sent him to the free throw line. Just five minutes into the second half, Texas Tech was quickly up 14. While the offense improved for the Red Raiders, the defense did not let up. While Texas Tech ended up scoring 39 in the second half, they held K-State to just 20. Perhaps even more impressive, the Wildcats had more than twice as many turnovers than made field goals in the second half. Their horrible offensive showing let Texas Tech run away with it, winning the game 66-47.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Kansas State
Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Jarrett Culver (23) is defended by Kansas State Wildcats forward Xavier Sneed (20)
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Tech had now won six in a row and were alone at the top of the Big 12. They’d be heading back to their home court for the next one, and they’d need that advantage. The Oklahoma Sooners, led by the Big 12’s scoring leader Trae Young, were heading into town. A lights out second half from Young helped carry Oklahoma to a 10 point victory in Norman earlier that season. Now, Keenan Evans, who was second in scoring in the Big 12, along with the quickly developing young core of Texas Tech looked to right their wrong. The Red Raiders had one extra weapon in this game: it’s fans. Not only would United Supermarkets Arena be a ruckus as usual, but it would also have extra motivation. Trae Young grew up in Lubbock and was recruited by Texas Tech. His father, Rayford Young, was a great Red Raider hooper himself. After opting to head to Norman, the fans would make sure he heard about it in his singular collegiate game played in Lubbock.

The teams went toe to toe to begin the contest. The defense that nearly blanked Trae Young in the first half of the previous match up was looking impressive in this one as well. Young made just one field goal in the first half, but managed to get to the free throw line nine times and made them all. Texas Tech got nine points from Evans and seven from Smith to support their tough defense. The game went into the break with Oklahoma up just one.

The second half began just as closely as the first. The teams traded buckets as the lead changed often. Back-to-back dunks from Texas Tech rallied the crowd and gave the team some momentum. The three point shooting from the Sooners, especially Kameron McGusty, put them right back in the game. Keenan Evans knocked down a triple with just under six minutes left, giving the Red Raiders a lead they wouldn’t lose. A scoring clinic by Evans along with a feast inside by Odiase led the Red Raiders to victory, 88-78. The story of this game was the defensive clinic handed to Trae Young. The Big 12’s best scorer finished with only 19 points. Eleven of those came from the free throw line, and he shot an egregious 0-for-9 from three point range. Texas Tech was beginning to gain complete control of the conference.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Texas Tech
Oklahoma Sooners guard Trae Young (11) looks for an opening against Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Jarett Culver (23)
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Tech would be heading to Waco to close out their tough road stretch that consisted of three out of four away from home. Last time they faced the Bears their defense did an exceptional job of slowing down sharpshooter Manu Lecomte. With the defense exponentially improving and the offense beginning to run a lot smoother, middle-of-the-pack Baylor looked like an easy win.

But with 1:14 left in the first half, Texas Tech’s worst nightmare became a reality. Keenan Evans went into the locker room after injuring his toe. It wouldn’t be for months that we’d learn the extent of this injury, but when we did, it was clear why Evans didn’t return to the court that night. He had broken his big toe, an injury that would impact him for the rest of his collegiate career and cause him to miss vital steps in securing an NBA roster spot.

Zhaire Smith had a monster first half that was keeping Texas Tech in the game. But after halftime, Smith only scored two points. With Culver shooting 18%, it was clear that there just wasn’t enough firepower to overcome the home advantage Bears. Terry Matson had 24 points off the bench, carrying the Bears to a 59-57 win.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Baylor
Baylor Bears forward Terry Maston (31) dunks the ball during the second half against the Texas Tech Red Raiders
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Just like that, the narrative was completely rewritten. A team that was just beginning to find its identity and hit its stride just lost one of the best scorers in the nation. Now, young players like Smith and Culver would no longer be extra weapons, but rather the primary sources of offense. With conference play coming to a close soon, the Red Raiders would need something special to stay at the top of the Big 12. Could they do it without their leader?