If Friday night's heart-stomping loss to Northern Iowa on Paul Jesperson's half-court, buzzer-beater was junior point guard Isaiah Taylor's last game, six Longhorns ended their Texas careers in Oklahoma City with barely enough breath to say good-bye.
While the rest of the country was watching a loop of Jesperson’s lottery like, game-ending jackpot, saying, “Are you kidding me?” - Taylor and seniors Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, Prince Ibeh, Cam Ridley and Damarcus Holland were in various states of disbelief in the locker room.
Lammert was in tears as he recounted getting a hand up in front of Jesperson and wondering if there was anything more he could’ve done without fouling.
Felix tore tape off of his wrist and threw it in disgust.
Ibeh tried to express the pain in something barely above a whisper with his head down, staring as his giant, burnt orange Nikes.
Ridley, who was averaging a double-double (12.7 ppg, 10 rpg) before missing 19 games with a fractured left foot, sounded like someone still trying to find his stolen senior season.
"It's March Madness," said Taylor, who later added that he'll explore entering the NBA Draft before making a final decision about his basketball future.
"He (Jesperson) hit a half-court shot. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen during this time of year. They made one more shot than us.”
The ending to the Longhorns’ season was emblematic of their entire season in Year 1 of the Shaka Smart era, which began under failed athletic director Steve Patterson and continues now under attorney-turned-athletic director Mike Perrin.
The team, like the program, had to get out of its own way before it could get focused on vanquishing opponents.
As reported first by Horns Digest, Smart was surprised and disgusted to learn, upon his arrival last April, that departing senior Jonathan Holmes didn’t graduate in four years despite being a capable student.
Smart learned Javan Felix wasn’t allowed to pick his own major and was also struggling to graduate in four years despite being a more-than-capable student.
It caused Smart to raise serious questions with women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky, who along with Randa Ryan, were in charge of student-athlete academic services under Patterson, about what the hell was going on to help student-athletes?
And then Smart and his staff lost one of their top 2016 recruiting targets after no one in the athletic department advised them about an impending Chronicle of Higher Education story last summer about possible academic fraud involving three former UT basketball players (P.J. Tucker, J’Covan Brown and Martez Walker).
Smart and his staff learned about the article the day it came out thanks to a fiery phone call from the recruit’s mother, who wanted answers.
And because Smart and his staff were oblivious to the allegations, the recruit’s mother thought they were hiding something, and the recruit basically crossed Texas off his list.
Smart and his staff still have nothing to tell recruits about when or where Texas will have its new basketball arena and practice facility once the UT medical school causes the Frank Erwin Center to come down.
There was an eight-day trip to China for the Texas' opener against Washington that totally disrupted preparations for the season compliments of Patterson, who volunteered Texas to be the bit player in Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott's "Pac-12 Globalization Initiative."
But by far the biggest issue Smart faced was a team full of players suffering from severe confidence loss. From the extensive conversations he had with them, it was the result of various versions of kicked-dog syndrome experienced under former coach Rick Barnes.
Being a psychologist is part of coaching. But before long, it seemed there weren’t enough counseling couches or office hours for Smart to keep up with all the re-programming this team seemed to need throughout the season.
Smart repeatedly talked to his players about making their teammates the focus and doing things for each other by “staying connected” and through something he calls “teamsmanship.”
Unfortunately on Friday night, against a veteran Northern Iowa team that knows its roles perfectly, it took Texas getting down 16 points in the first half for the Longhorns to finally come together - after being kept in the game by Taylor.
Taylor hit clutch 3s (3-of-3) and gutsy drives for 16 first-half points and helped Texas cut the halftime deficit to eight points.
In the second half, led by the shot-blocking and hustle of Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Prince Ibeh, one of Smart's best turnaround stories this season, Texas went on a 12-0 run and took a six-point lead, 53-47, with 12:32 left.
But Jesperson hit a 3 to end that 12-0 run by Texas. And then a seesaw struggle ensued. Taylor hit the hold-your-breath leaner with 2.7 seconds on the clock to tie the game at 72 and had everyone watching thinking overtime. Then, Jesperson took an inbounds pass just shy of the NCAA logo, dribbled, took one big step and launched the Longhorns into the role of foil for his epic March Madness moment - destined to be replayed for years to come.
“There's not really much you can say to make them feel better in moments like this,” said Smart, who hasn’t been out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since his VCU team went to the Final Four in 2011.
“I just told them I love them and I'm proud of them. I told the seniors that I'm just so proud of the progress they've made.
“When I met those guys in the spring, they all had different reasons for why they hadn't done as well as they thought they should have done or other people thought they should have done.
“But what's happened over the course of the last several months is those guys have grown to take on a level of accountability and understand that they're probably - no, they definitely have to be the biggest part of their own success.
“I think those guys have learned that. It's taken us some time to learn that as a group.
“I thought the way our guys responded after getting down tonight really showed that they wanted to do it for each other. That's why losing is so hard because I think our guys really took a step.”
While Taylor considers his future, Texas’ returning roster right now consists of guards Kendal Yancy, Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis, wing Tevin Mack and center Shaq Cleare.
Texas only had 12 of a possible 13 scholarship players going into the season. With the departures of UT’s five seniors, plus the transfer of Jordan Barnett earlier this year, Texas will have seven scholarships to give going into the 2016-17.
If Taylor leaves early, Smart and his staff will have eight scholarships to give.
Texas already has signed letters of intent from 4-star shooting guard Jacob Young and 4-star big man James Banks. Five-star point guard Andrew Jones is committed to UT and can sign his letter next month.
Texas, which has failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since an Elite Eight berth in 2008, is considered the leader for 5-star big man Jarrett Allen of Austin St. Stephen’s and is also desperately pursuing at least two power forwards.
Smart was asked if he’s daunted by the idea of an almost complete reboot of his starting lineup next season?
“We’ve known that was coming – and it would have been coming if we lost tonight or won six games in the NCAA Tournament,” Smart said.
“We’ve got some more work to do in recruiting. But right now, it’s about this team and especially our seniors. I’m sorry we couldn’t keep this going for them.”
Felix was asked why Smart is the right guy to lead the Texas program?
“Because he loves his players and shows them he does - day in and day out,” Felix said.
“He just teaches you about so much more than basketball,” Felix said. “He teaches you about life and about how true success on a team only comes when you stop doing things for yourself and do it in a brotherhood with your teammates.”
Then, he paused for a second, and added:
“We never thought we were going to lose that game. I just wasn’t ready for this to end – at all.”