AUSTIN, Texas — You knew something was amiss Saturday night when Texas forward Kamaka Hepa showed up in the starting lineup. Um, where was Greg Brown, Kai Jones and Brock Cunningham?
Turns out, three critical Longhorns were sidelined because of COVID-19 protocols. No matter. In the end, Texas coach Shaka Smart had the apt description of what happened against Kansas State.
Texas’ 82-67 win over Kansas State was “Kamaka-licious!”
The fourth-ranked Longhorns (11-2, 5-1 Big 12) bounced back from a disappointing mid-week loss by unleashing its Alaskan assassin.
Hepa unleashed a career-high five 3-pointers and finished with 15 points, three rebounds and a block. His new look — the chopped-off haircut and white headband — “makes me a little bit more aerodynamic, so I’m able to run out there a little bit faster,” Hepa said. The Alaska native was running wild against the Wildcats (5-9, 1-5).
Hepa's got an interesting backstory. He actually planned on redshirting this season. The 6-foot-9 junior figured there’d be scant playing time with all these veterans returning. Once the NCAA froze everyone’s eligibility because of the pandemic, Hepa figured he’d start playing.
Still, Hepa tallied only nine minutes in three games going into Saturday night. Two other UT reserves transferred out; Hepa stuck it out.
There he was listed in the starting lineup against K-State. Hepa heard his name echo through an empty Erwin Center for pre-game introductions. Then, he went to work, helping Texas break open a tie game with a full-court press and a 20-2 first-half run.
“Obviously, I was a little bit more excited about tonight, just because I was able to be out there with my teammates on the court,” an amped-up Hepa said. “Just because of my situation and our team situation this year, I don't necessarily get to do that too much.
“But I enjoy every second of my team and I enjoy embodying my role,” Hepa added, “and it felt really good to just be out there with my teammates playing basketball.”