AUSTIN, Texas -- Zora Sanae Smart frolicked into the bleachers, holding her mother’s hand while her curls bounced atop her head 30 minutes prior to Texas' 84-82 victory over No. 3 North Carolina on Saturday.
Javan Felix's buzzer-beater sealed one of the most pivotal wins of her father’s coaching career, a victory that signified the dawning of a new era at Texas.
They're why he waited.
Shaka Smart did not entertain -- and reject -- offers from big schools with big boosters, big checkbooks and bigger talent because he enjoyed the attention or craved more perks from VCU brass.
He waited because he did not want to leave VCU for another job. He wanted a home, for himself, for wife Maya, for his 4-year-old daughter and for his mother-in-law, who now calls Austin home too.
Smart researched the schools and the communities. He sought information on diversity in the area. He moved to Austin after he accepted the job in April.
But on Saturday, Smart arrived. The win over North Carolina announced he is here to build. He is here to energize an arena that lost so much mojo in recent seasons that the university hired a consultant to boost the Frank Erwin Center environment, complete with a DJ, pregame fireworks and something called a “Hype Squad.” He is here to turn Texas into a Big 12 contender again -- not the afterthought it became in the final years of Rick Barnes’ tenure.
You don’t get a crown for a victory over North Carolina -- though the suspenseful victory was UT’s first win over a top-five squad since the Longhorns won at No. 2 Kansas on Jan. 22, 2011 -- and you shouldn’t. Conference play will begin soon. Then, Selection Sunday. Three months of barometers and gut checks.
That said, a victory over North Carolina might sway lingering doubters, show the Longhorns community Smart is the right choice and encourage the guards, forwards and trees in high schools throughout Houston, Dallas and the rest of the country to consider Texas. It’s a step toward making Texas relevant again.
“It feels great,” Smart said. “To be honest with you, there have been some growing pains and some transition pains, especially for them.”
A person close to the team said the transition has featured practices that “kick their asses.” Smart said he stops those practice sometimes and makes his players run when they’re not talking to one another. He’s deliberate. It’s how he intends to shift the culture of a program that lost faith and fans in Barnes’ last days.
The Longhorns also lost battles like the one they encountered Saturday with a North Carolina team favored by many to win the national championship. Instead of shrinking under the spotlight, however, the Longhorns stuck their chests out and asked for more.
Long before Felix’s game winner and 25th point, the senior guard hit crucial 3-pointers in the second half (Texas finished 12-for-24 from the 3-point line). Isaiah Taylor, a running back in the first half and a ballerina pirouetting through the lane in the second, helped Texas hang tough. The team recorded a 16-4 edge on the offensive glass against a squad that entered the game with a top-50 offensive rebounding rate, per KenPom.com.
Tar Heels forward Justin Jackson looked like a star in the first half (13 points) and lost (two points) after halftime. Guard Eric Davis Jr. admitted he questioned his choice after Texas fired Barnes, but he remained loyal to his commitment after Smart flew to his home in Saginaw, Michigan, and made his pitch.
Felix and Taylor made the freshman who played like a senior sit in the middle during the postgame news conference “because you’re a freshman.”
“I’m glad I came,” said Davis, who finished with 16 points off the bench.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Felix has an “old man YMCA” game.
“He’s not the first to say that,” Felix replied.
Nothing mattered to them then -- not the critics who questioned Felix’s shot selection, Taylor’s turnovers and Smart’s ability to implement his defensive schemes with so much size on the roster -- nothing except the moment.
They basked in joy in the minutes that followed a significant night for a new face in Austin. Taylor took selfies with a sea of Texas bros. Fans rapped Jay Z lyrics as they climbed the stairs. Some just stood and stared at the scoreboard and chaos below. They had screamed for two hours -- proof big wins are still the best elixir for a stale environment.
About 20 feet from the victory scrum, Longhorns football coach Charlie Strong stood and smiled in the tunnel. He had just orchestrated a deal that will bring Tulsa offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert to campus.
“I’m so happy for Shaka and to see how this team battled and just watch them go at it and finish the game the right way,” Strong told ESPN.com. “We’ve got so many great supporters. You look at the atmosphere today. It’s unbelievable.”
Strong dapped Taylor and talked to boosters and fans. Then he saw Smart.
“I gave him a hug. He gave me a good hug,” Smart said. “I said, ‘Did you get your guy?' It’s so nice to have support from someone like him. As a coach, he gets it.”
Two coaches, two friends, two men who hope to enhance their respective programs and make Longhorns fans happy again.
The 16,540 at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday all smiled once officials signaled that Felix’s shot left his hand before time expired. Smart’s family, his assistants, his players, the young, the elderly, men and women, all of them smiled. Smart did too.
For the new Texas coach, it all probably felt like home.