It looked as if Keenan Evans had returned to his old self. He scored 23 points in Texas Tech’s last regular-season game against TCU. His performance helped end a four-game losing streak, and more importantly his own scoring rut. It’s not his fault that Evans was having a problem putting the ball through the net. What was initially an unidentified toe injury would eventually be diagnosed as a broken big toe. It was taking an enormous amount of perseverance to play through the injury, and he’d need even more of it as he entered the most frantic month in all of sports: March.
Heading into the Big 12 Conference Tournament, Evans looked to have another remarkable night against the Texas Longhorns. In his last game against the Longhorns, he scored a career-high 38 points that included a game-winning shot at the buzzer. In Kansas City, it was going to take a team effort from the conference’s second seed to take down a talented Texas team.
The Red Raiders opened up the game aggressively, jumping out to an early 14-2 lead. They still lead by 12 at the nine-minute mark when Jacob Young of the Longhorns began to heat up. Jacob Young is a name you may not recognize. He averaged only 6.2 points per game in 16.8 minutes per game that season. He was one of only two bench players to make an appearance in this game for Texas. But seeing an opportunity, he took it and quickly began to fill the box score for his team.
The Red Raiders weren’t shooting threes at a very high volume, but they were knocking them down consistently. Their sharpshooting helped carry them to a seven-point lead at the break. As soon as the second half started back up, so did Jacob Young. He knocked down four three-pointers in just eight minutes, keeping the Longhorns in it. Another three from Young and then a layup by Matt Coleman brought Texas within one. Keenan Evans began attacking the basket as Zhaire Smith found himself open for a couple of jumpers. Although Evans would lead Texas Tech in scoring by the end of the night, this was an all-around team performance. The bench scored a combined 25 points to complement the 25 scored by Evans. The well-balanced attack was enough to take down the Longhorns, 73-69. The Red Raiders had managed to overcome a career-high 29 point night from Jacob Young and move on to the second round of the conference tournament for the first time since 2005.
Just 26 hours later, Texas Tech would face a foe still fresh on their minds: West Virginia. When the teams first met in January, the Red Raiders won the game by a point when the Mountaineers were the second-ranked team in the nation. But just a week and a half ago, West Virginia got the best of a Texas Tech team that was without Evans. Now, with Keenan Evans laced up and ready to go, the Red Raiders looked for redemption and a spot in the Big 12 Title game. However, the question still loomed if Evans would be ready with just one day of rest under his belt. Yet from the tip-off, it was clear he wasn’t. In the first half, Evans shot just 2-for-6 from the field, scoring just four points. The toe was clearly holding him back from taking over as we typically knew him to do. Still, the team rallied in an attempt to win the game. Niem Stevenson came off the bench and gave the Red Raiders a handful of critical baskets that kept them in the game. A defensive dogfight, this game went into halftime with West Virginia leading 27-26.
The second half started with seven Jarrett Culver points in eight minutes. His scoring boost helped keep his team within one possession despise West Virginia’s tireless effort on both ends. Daxter Miles Jr. also began to warm up in the second half, knocking down a bucket on what felt like every possession. His three-point shooting began to fall very consistently, helping West Virginia hold their lead. The effort didn’t slow down for Texas Tech as a Niem Stevenson three-ball tied the game with just five minutes left. The teams traded blow-for-blow until two fouls by Justin Gray sent West Virginia to the free-throw line with just more than a minute left. They stretched their lead to four, and a missed three by Keenan Evans meant it was over for the Red Raiders. Texas Tech’s conference tournament had ended with a 66-63 loss.
Unable to redeem their regular-season conference performance in tournament play, they now looked to the golden jewel to make noise: March Madness. There was a growing feeling that this team had something special about them. Now was their chance to prove it. Little did they know that in less than a week they’d be featured on SportsCenter and advancing themselves in the tournament.