Nembhard’s game-winner lifts men’s basketball over UC Irvine to keep the Frogs perfect

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Guard R.J. Nembhard (22) poured in a career-high 20 points, including the game winner, against UC Irvine. Photo by Heesoo Yang.

Despite shooting just 36 percent from the floor, TCU basketball slipped away with a 59-58 win over UC Irvine Thursday night behind a career-high 20 points and a last-second game-winner from guard R.J. Nembhard.

With 3.3 seconds remaining, Nembhard drained a three-pointer to give the Frogs a one-point lead for the first time in almost 14 minutes of play.

“My teammates have confidence in me, and my coaches have confidence in me,” Nembhard said.  “It was just another shot.”

The sophomore from Keller, Texas, hit a career-high five three-pointers in the game, three of which came in the last 3:06 of regulation.

The win held even more meaning than a tally in the win column for TCU, as it was the 400th career victory for head coach Jamie Dixon. He becomes the 11th coach in NCAA Division 1 history to reach the mark.

“I’ve been at great places. That’s probably what it says,” Dixon said about the mark. “I’m very fortunate and very thankful.”

It was a slow first half for both teams, with the squads shooting a combined 31 percent through the first 20 minutes.

Behind four made three-pointers, TCU jumped out to an early 15-8 lead, but a 9-2 run by UC Irvine brought the Anteaters right back within two.

The first half would go back-and-forth from there, with the Frogs using a 6-0 run to go into the halftime break with a slim 28-22 lead.

Per usual, the Frogs lived by the three pointer in the first half, as five of their 10 made field goals came from behind the arc. 

TCU had held UC Irvine’s leading scorer, Eyassus Worku (13.4 points per game), to zero points on 0-for-4 shooting in the first half.

Worku didn’t stay silent in the second half, though, spouting off six points to help the Anteaters take a 38-36 lead just six minutes into the half.

The senior finished with 12 points and five assists in the contest.

Moments later, center Kevin Samuel was called for his fourth foul, and the sophomore was benched for the next nine minutes of play.

Foul trouble for center Kevin Samuel hurt the Frogs late in the second half. Photo by Heesoo Yang.

“We feel good about our depth inside,” Dixon said.  “I think we adjusted a little bit.”

During that time, the Frogs never led and trailed by as much as four.

Despite shooting struggles, TCU kept it close the entire way through tight defense, bringing the game down to the wire.

The Frogs forced 21 turnovers in the game while committing just 13.

With just 30 seconds remaining, Samuel got fouled down low with the Frogs down 58-56. Both free throw attempts hit off the front of the rim, forcing TCU to foul.

“Tell him it’s going to be alright,” guard Edric Dennis said about keeping Samuel’s head up. “Kev spends a lot of time working on his free throws, and it’s going to show.”

Samuel entered the game shooting just 43 percent from the line in his career.

The Frogs then missed another opportunity to tie, as Nembhard’s layup attempt was blocked following a missed free throw by the Anteaters.

Hope was not lost for TCU, though. With a chance to seal the game, UC Irvine missed two free throw attempts, giving the Frogs another shot.

This time, Nembhard wouldn’t miss. The sophomore caught a pass in stride and hit his fifth three of the game to give TCU a one-point lead with 3.3 seconds remaining.

UC Irvine’s pass went out of bounds in the final seconds, and the Frogs escaped with a win to remain undefeated.

Guard Desmond Bane was the only other Frog besides Nembhard to score in double figures, finishing with 11 points to go with seven rebounds.

Up next, TCU will head on the road for the first time this season for a match up with Clemson in the MGM Resorts Main Event. Tipoff at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 24, at 9:30 p.m. The game will be aired on ESPN2.

“We’re going to take the same approach,” Dennis said. “We’re going to take it and go on the road and try to win.”