Texas’ NCAA tournament streak alive, for now

KANSAS CITY — By the end of the night, Alexis Wangmene found himself sporting two casts, one for each wrist. There was big one across his left forearm, a massive club that braced the bone he’d broken at Kansas last week, ending his senior season. But the little blue one on the right wrist was new. A bright red gash could be seen poking a few inches out from the top. A love scar.

“I was screaming, I was jumping around,” the Texas center explained after the Longhorns knocked off Iowa State 71-65 late Thursday night to advance to the Big 12 tournament semifinals. “I was trying to hold the chair and I got caught. I was just trying to get up, trying to put my wrist on the chair. The iron on the side slightly cut me.”

With that, the big Cameroon native grinned. He knew it was dumb. He didn’t care. It’s March. If it takes a flesh wound for the cause, brother, fire away.

“As of (Thursday) morning, I was still trying to figure out how I could play,” said Wangmene, whose collegiate career ended on a freakish fall at Allen Fieldhouse. “I’d iced (the left wrist) for maybe six straight hours.”

That’s how badly the Longhorns (20-13) wanted this one. That’s how badly they wanted off the proverbial NCAA tournament fence. That’s how badly they wanted their tickets to Bracketville punched. That’s how badly they wanted to keep that Big Dance streak — 13 years straight, now likely going on 14 — alive. The last time Texas missed the NCAA tourney, Justin Bieber was four years old.

“Right before the game, I said, ‘We have a streak going here at Texas. We don’t want to be the team that’s remembered for breaking it,'” said freshman point guard Myck Kabongo, who collected 11 points and five assists. “That’s what I told the guys before the game. ‘Thirteen times in a row. We can’t break it.'”

The Bubble can be a scary place, especially when it seems as if the world is scrutinizing your every breath, when the pressure you’ve read about for all those years becomes tangible, becomes real. The programs faced with “must-win” games Thursday were a mixed bag, collectively: Seton Hall lost. Northwestern choked. So did Washington and Oregon. Arizona, North Carolina State and Miami won.

When they turn that spotlight on, some guys bask in the glow. Others wilt. Texas escaped.

“I did tell the guys this,” said Longhorns coach Rick Barnes, who’ll meet No. 5 Missouri, a team that swept Texas during the regular season, in Friday’s second semifinal. “I said, ‘You know what? Let’s just say we are on the bubble. Let’s just say that, all right? Now, if I wrote down “NIT” or “NCAA,” which one would you put your name under right now?’

“And I said, ‘So, whichever one you want, I can assure you’re going to have to earn it.'”

They earned this one. The hard way.

Texas was sluggish out of the gate, although they somehow still managed to keep the Cyclones within shouting distance. Ace sharpshooter J’Covan Brown missed seven of nine shots in the first half. Kabongo whiffed on six of his first eight. As a team, the Longhorns misfired on 28 of its first 38 attempts. And yet, despite it all, they were only down four at the break.

“I think (it was) our defense,” freshman forward Jonathan Holmes replied when asked what helped keep Bevo afloat. “It all starts with our defense.”

But it ended, as usual, with Brown, who netted 16 points in the second half despite winding up 0 for 5 from beyond the arc. The junior’s three-point play with 14:46 left in the ballgame trimmed Iowa State’s lead to 42-40 and seemed to ignite the young Texas bench. A crowd that was 90 percent dressed in Cyclone cardinal and gold — Iowa State faithful like to refer to the Sprint Center as “Hilton (Coliseum) South” — began to get restless.

“You love to walk into other gyms and quiet their fans.” Brown said.

The Cyclones pushed the lead back to four on a Royce White dunk. The building shook again. But Texas kept coming, answering with a 15-3 run, landing jab after jab.

“We just knew,” Kabongo said. “We knew what was at stake … We got down, never gave up. That’s the story of our team. None of us will ever give up.”

Not on the season. Or one another. Thursday morning, Kabongo made a point to go over to Wangmene — the Longhorns’ spiritual leader, enforcer and best defender — and dedicate the weekend to him.

“That’s my guy. My brother,” the freshman said of Wangmene. “We needed him to be a cheerleader today. All he was missing was his pom-pons.”

That and a little blood. But given the chance, he’ll spill some more Friday, smiling to the last drop.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com