Keenan Evans Leads Texas Tech Past Stephen F. Austin

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 15: Keenan Evans
DALLAS, TX - MARCH 15: Keenan Evans /

Keenan Evans scored 23 points to lead Texas Tech on a second-half charge to rally past Stephen F. Austin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night.

In any single-elimination tournament, it is always nice to have the best player on the court playing for your team.  That was the ace in the hole Texas Tech was able to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night.

Keenan Evans put the Red Raiders on his back, as he has done so often during his senior season to push Tech to its first NCAA Tournament win since 2005.  Evans put up 19 of his 23 points in the second half to help Texas Tech rally from eight points down to take a 70-60 win in front of a pro-Texas Tech crowd in Dallas.

But for the first thirty minutes of the game, the 15,000 plus Texas Tech fans were kept in check as the Lumberjacks controlled the game.  Turnovers and poor shooting from the Red Raiders (including another struggle from the foul line) led to a three-point halftime deficit and an eventual 39-31 hole early in the second half.

However, Keenan Evans was not ready to let his college career end in round one of the tournament.

"“The last time we were here (in the NCAA Tournament in 2016), we didn’t get the job done. Evans said after the game.  “For us to get the first one out of the way is a really good feeling and I feel like all we can do is improve the rest of the way.”"

Playing in front of his hometown crowd, the Richardson, Texas native began his second-half assault with a three that pulled Texas Tech to within three points and seemed to help settled his team down.  Once Texas Tech found its feet in the second half, a familiar script unfolded as the Red Raiders overwhelmed the Jacks.

Using a small lineup featuring Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith as the team’s front-court, the Red Raiders clamped down on the SFA shooters forcing the Jacks into tough shots in the half-court set.

On the other end of the court, Texas Tech stopped settling for outside shots and began to attack the basket, led by Evans who could not be kept out of the paint.  It was a scenario Texas Tech fans have seen throughout the season as Evans had made a name for himself as a closer in the games final 20 minutes.

"“I guess I just get aggressive later in the game and and it’s something I’ve got to do for my team.” Evans said. “I gotta get to the line and…make plays and… just bring us to a win.  So, as the time winds down, I get more aggressive and more aggressive.”"

Evans’ heroics helped Texas Tech win on a night when its second-leading scorer had perhaps his worst game of the season.  True freshman Jarrett Culver struggled against the intense SFA perimeter defense scoring just 6 points and committing four turnovers.

In fact, only one other Red Raider, Zhaire Smith, reached double-digits in point on the night.  Smith had 10 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks a steal and an assist.  Though he played a fantastic all-around game, Smith’s night will be remembered for one play.

In the first half, Smith threw down a 360 slam off an alley-oop from Evans making an early case for the dunk of the tournament.

The spectacular dunk caused social media to explode and could rival Darvin Ham’s 1996 backboard shattering dunk in the second round of the tournament in Texas Tech lore.

"“I was just about to catch it but I adjusted and 360-ed.  I surprised myself.” Smith said."

The win was the first NCAA Tournament win for Texas Tech since Bob Knight led his team to the Sweet 16 in 2005.  That year, Ronald Ross, Jay Jackson and the Red Raiders were the No. 6 seed and upset No. 3 seed Gonzaga in round two.

Now, as a No. 3 seed, Tech will look to avoid being upset by No. 6 Florida on Saturday.  The Gators knocked off St. Bonaventure 77-62 in the final game of the night at American Airlines Center.

The arena that is home to the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks was packed full of rabid Red Raiders that helped will their team to a gritty win Thursday.  The atmosphere should be even more electric Saturday night when Texas Tech attempts to extend its season and move into the third round of the East region.

Next: Texas Tech's 3 Biggest Tournament Challenges

But for that to happen, Tech will have to play a more complete game and get more contributions from its supporting cast. After all, Keenan Evans can’t continually carry his team on his back though the entire tournament, or can he?  Texas Tech fans as starting to believe he just might.