It was only four days ago that TCU suffered an agonizing 73-68 loss to Oklahoma in Norman to end the regular season with a seven-game losing streak. In was an entirely different story when the two teams met again on Wednesday night in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament, as the Horned Frogs had their vengeance with an 82-63 win over the Sooners at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, advancing to the Big 12 Quarterfinals.
It was the first win for TCU on the hardwood in more than a month, snapping a nightmarish skid that dealt a significant blow to the Frogs’ hopes of their first NCAA Tournament invitation in more than two decades and included three home losses by three points or less. The team’s most recent victory prior to Wednesday was a 62-61 home win against Texas Tech on Feb. 27.
TCU head coach Jamie Dixon said the outing that got his team back in the win-column was all about attitude.
"You know, during the stretch I felt food about this team even though we've had a long streak of losing some tight games,” Dixon said. “I've felt good about it, and [the team’s] attitude has been tremendous. Their work ethic has been great. I think they were rewarded today.”
Four players recorded double digit figures on the scoreboard for the Horned Frogs in the win, with Vladimir Brodziansky leading the way at 20 points on the night. Kenrich Williams finished right behind him, dropping 19 points, while Alex Robinson and Jaylen Fisher tallied 17 and 11, respectively. Dixon described the outings from the four high-scorers as “unselfish.”
“Alex was terrific - nine assists, no turnovers” Dixon said. “And Jaylen, they ran the team and both guys, team effort. Ten guys played big minutes for us and solid minutes and a great effort by our guys. Kenrich was terrific and has been doing that and people are starting to realize how good of a player he is, and Vladimir let things come to him and finished on the penetration from those guys.”
The 82 points for TCU were the most in program history for a Big 12 playoff game, and more than enough to keep the Frogs’ glimmer of hope for an NCAA Tournament bid alive for yet another day – A Big 12 title likely being the only path for TCU going forward.
“I feel like we stuck together as a team even though we did have that losing streak,” Robinson said. “We stayed together and we talked about it and we put our words into actions and we have to continue to do so as this tournament goes on.”
The game was tightly contested in the first half, tied at 29-all with just under four minutes until halftime. But the Frogs, after struggling to do so in almost every game the past four weeks, were able get shots to fall when it mattered the most, exploding for a 15-2 run in the final 3:59 of the half to take a 44-31 lead into the locker room.
The scoring run began when Williams hit back-to-back three-pointers, followed up by another downtown shot from Robinson. Brodziansky would add three more on a foul-plus-one before Williams sunk one from beyond the arc with just seconds to play in the half.
The Sooners would cut the deficit to seven midway through the second half at 55-48, but the Frogs once again pulled away, going up by 17 points with as much as 8:35 left when Fisher got a three-pointer to fall. The lead would soon become 19, holding all the way until the final buzzer as the Frogs advanced while the Sooners finished with their first 20-loss season in school history.
Dixon said improved shot selection was the difference maker in his squad finally being able to pull away, with Frogs shooting 60 percent (33-55) from the field in the win.
“Our shot selection was terrific,” Dixon said. “One of the things that we've had that's kept us from winning these close games down the stretch…..was some shot selections and missed free throws.”
As Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad gets an early jump on preparations for the 2017-2018 season, the Frogs will be rewarded for their victory by getting to battle it out against the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks Thursday afternoon. What will already be a difficult task for TCU could be amplified by a turnaround of less than 24 hours and a pro-Kansas crowd, as the Jayhawks will be playing only 40 miles away from their home in Lawrence, Kansas.
Nonetheless, Dixon, who is no stranger to success in conference tournaments, has high hopes of pleasing Frog fans who made the trek to see their team face-off against the No. 1 team in the land, and possibly beyond.
“I know this is the biggest demand we've ever had for Big 12 tickets from our fans, so we want to start a tradition of making runs in this Big 12 Tournament,” Dixon said. “That was something we did at the Big East and what we were known for, so we want to have a new tradition for this is the place to come for Horned Frog fans to make the trip from Fort Worth to Kansas City for the weekend.”
Despite losing to Kansas in both meetings during the regular season, the Frogs managed to hang close with the Jayhawks on both occasions for at least a portion of the 40 minutes played. Dixon said he expects Thursday’s contest to be even more competitive than the last two.
“The record doesn't indicate it, but watching it on film we're a better team now than we were and I think it all came together today and we've got to have it come together tomorrow as well, but I think just handling their runs will be the biggest challenge and that's been a challenge for us,” Dixon said. “Sometimes we don't respond with that next possession. That's where we've got to handle them, because they're terrific, obviously, and getting a turnover, turning a bad shot into a basket.”
The Frogs may also benefit from a short-handed Kansas squad, as freshman Josh Jackson will be serving a one-game suspension following a recent traffic citation. Jackson finished the regular season with an average of 16.4 points per game. Tip-off is set for 1:30 p.m., with the game televised on ESPN 2.