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Texas downs K-State in Austin, 82-67

By Brian Davis
Austin American-Statesman/TNS

AUSTIN, Texas - You knew something was amiss Saturday night when Texas forward Kamaka Hepa showed up in the starting lineup. Um, where was Greg Brown, Kai Jones and Brock Cunningham?

Turns out, three critical Longhorns were sidelined because of COVID-19 protocols. No matter. In the end, Texas coach Shaka Smart had the apt description of what happened against Kansas State.

Texas’ 82-67 win over Kansas State was “Kamaka-licious!”

The fourth-ranked Longhorns (11-2, 5-1 Big 12) bounced back from a disappointing mid-week loss by unleashing its Alaskan assassin.

Hepa unleashed a career-high five 3-pointers and finished with 15 points, three rebounds and a block. His new look — the chopped-off haircut and white headband — “makes me a little bit more aerodynamic, so I’m able to run out there a little bit faster,” Hepa said. The Alaska native was running wild against the Wildcats (5-9, 1-5).

Hepa's got an interesting backstory. He actually planned on redshirting this season. The 6-foot-9 junior figured there’d be scant playing time with all these veterans returning. Once the NCAA froze everyone’s eligibility because of the pandemic, Hepa figured he’d start playing.

Still, Hepa tallied only nine minutes in three games going into Saturday night. Two other UT reserves transferred out; Hepa stuck it out.

There he was listed in the starting lineup against K-State. Hepa heard his name echo through an empty Erwin Center for pre-game introductions. Then, he went to work, helping Texas break open a tie game with a full-court press and a 20-2 first-half run.

“Obviously, I was a little bit more excited about tonight, just because I was able to be out there with my teammates on the court,” an amped-up Hepa said. “Just because of my situation and our team situation this year, I don't necessarily get to do that too much.

“But I enjoy every second of my team and I enjoy embodying my role,” Hepa added, “and it felt really good to just be out there with my teammates playing basketball.”

It was obvious that Smart felt good about it, too. The coach wears a mask on the post-game Zoom calls, but Smart was smiling with his eyes.

“This guy is going to be highly successful in life,” Smart said. “When he gets done playing basketball, I’ve told him he’s probably going to be all of our boss someday in whatever it is that he wants to do. He gives off an incredible energy and has this spirit about him that is infectious and very, very positive.”

Smart has always loved Hepa’s energy. Sometimes, the Longhorns’ hype man gets too hype. Take Wednesday’s game against Texas Tech as Example A. After Cunningham was called for a rather bogus foul, the UT bench went crazy. Hepa went sprinting around like it was a bad call at Rucker Park. The upstaged official doled out an instant technical foul.

“Man, you’ve seen him on the bench. He’s the most engaged and excited guy there is,” Smart said. “But he can play.”

So can Jase Febres. Fans haven’t seen much of Hepa this season, but they haven’t seen anything from the 6-foot-5 Febres. While the rest of the Texas sporting world was watching the Westlake-Southlake Carroll state championship game, Febres was quietly making his season debut.

The Horns’ sharpshooter had not played since Feb. 8, 2020. He underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee and spent the early pandemic months simply trying to get through rehabilitation.

Febres had been going through some pre-game warmups lately, but Smart said the guard wouldn’t play until he felt totally comfortable. For athletes, getting over that last mental hurdle is likely the toughest part of any recovery.

If Saturday was any indication, Febres is feeling great.

Febres, who entered the game about four minutes in, looked rather impressive with a chase-down block. He drilled a 3-pointer with 8:05 remaining in the first half, the 173rd of his career. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, Febres had another block from behind where he came out talking some smack.

Febres finished with six points, five rebounds, three assists and those two blocks in 22 minutes.

Andrew Jones pumped in a team-high 19 points by hitting four 3-pointers. Courtney Ramey scored 14, Jericho Sims put in 14 more and Texas was in cruise control the entire second half.

It was so freewheeling that Ramey even threw a lob pass to Sims off the backboard for a slam dunk in the second half.

Texas shot 52.3% overall and only turned it over 10 times. Kansas State simply couldn’t match the offense or pace. Midway through the first half, it was clear the Horns would be OK without their missing pieces.

Texas head coach Shaka Smart talks to guard Andrew Jones during a 2019 game.