When Myck Kabongo finally returned from his suspension, everything changed for Texas.
Its rotations. Its offensive execution. Its defensive tenacity.
The outcome of games, too.
Kabongo had 16 points and six assists Wednesday night, leading Texas on a big second half run in a 70-57 win over TCU that sent the Longhorns into the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.
The victory also gave the No. 7 seed Longhorns (16-16) three straight wins for the first time since early December, when Kabongo was in the midst of a 23-game benching handed down by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits, and set up a date Thursday night with No. 11 Kansas State.
"There's no doubt, put it rust, feel, whatever — he's played nine games this year. He sat for a long time," Texas coach Rick Barnes said of his sophomore guard. "I do think we're figuring some things out with a full rotation. We never got to do that in practice with Myck."
It couldn't have come at a better time for the Longhorns, which still need to win three more games at the Sprint Center to reach the NCAA tournament for the 15th straight year.
"They're a dangerous team right now," TCU coach Trent Johnson said. "If anybody is capable of winning three more games here, it's them."
Julien Lewis finished with 19 points and Sheldon McClellan had 12 for the Longhorns, which have won seven straight and 11 of their last 12 against the Horned Frogs.
Texas actually trailed 44-43 midway through the second half, but took the lead on a basket underneath by Prince Ibeh and then slowly extended it. Moments later, ripped off a 13-3 run that resulted in a 62-49 lead and effectively put the Horned Frogs (11-21) away.
"The main difference," Johnson said, "is they made shots down the stretch."
Connell Crossland scored 11 points and Charles Hill Jr. had all 10 of his points in the second half for TCU, which won only twice during its first trip through the Big 12 — a stunning upset of then-No. 5 Kansas and victory over Oklahoma in its regular-season finale.
"We've got a lot of experience in losing this year," Johnson said.
The Longhorns got that experience early in the season, losing five straight to open conference play. But they've been playing better the past six weeks, and they kept their late-season momentum going when they raced out to a 10-2 lead in the opening minutes Wednesday night.
It was about that point that Johnson slapped on a 2-3 zone defense that slowed the Longhorns down. After a 3-pointer by McClellan made it 13-4 with 13:03 left in the half, Texas only managed three free throws until Connor Lammert's put-back with 4:52 to go.
That period of offensive futility, which included three turnovers and a bunch of missed baskets, allowed TCU to squeak ahead on Nate Butler Lind's 3-pointer with 2:40 left in the half.
"Got stymied a little on the offensive end," Barnes said with a smile.
Lewis answered with back-to-back 3-pointers for the Longhorns, his only two field goals of the first half, and Texas managed to escape to the locker room leading 28-26 at the break.
TCU managed to stay with the Longhorns early in the second half, but Kabongo's ability to get into the paint resulted in an endless stream of whistles and plenty of free throws. The Longhorns wound up 25 of 32 from the foul line, and Kabongo was 8 of 9 by himself.
"Being aggressive. That's all it is, being aggressive, and staying in attack mode," he said, "and knowing when we're in the bonus to take care of the ball. That's all it is, being aggressive."
Kabongo had four free throws during the Longhorns' 13-3 run late in the second half, which broke open a close game and allowed them to get another shot at the Wildcats.
Kansas State won both of their meetings earlier this season.
"I'm not sure they're not one of the best teams," Barnes said of the regular-season co-champions. "They know how to win, they know each other, and I think it's a team that really understands its roles extremely well. It's a team that stays together.
"Again, what can you say?" Barnes asked. "They're the conference champions."