Houston Chronicle

More than a hype machine

Selfless Hepa shows he’s got game to match in win over K-State

- By Nick Moyle STAFF WRITER nmoyle@express-news.net twitter.com/nrmoyle

AUSTIN — Shaka Smart’s never coached someone quite like Kamaka Hepa.

The Texas junior hails from a remote Alaskan outpost inside the Arctic Circle. In the Iñupiat community of Utqiagvik, basketball provides an escape during the dark winters for the city of 4,300.

The spring softening gives way to bowhead whale and caribou hunts, snowmobile treks and the mirthful Nalukataq whaling festival. But this upbringing isn’t what makes Hepa so unique as a Longhorn, though.

“He’s one of one in terms of guys I’ve coached — as a person,” Smart said. “This guy is going to be highly successful in life. When he gets done playing basketball, I’ve told him, he’s probably gonna be all of our boss someday in whatever it is that he wants to do. Because he gives off incredible energy and has this spirit about him that is infectious and very, very positive.”

Most of Hepa’s impact goes unseen. But it’s felt both within and outside the locker room for No. 5 Texas (11-2, 5-1 Big 12), which counts itself fortunate to have signed a three-time Gatorade state player of the year (twice in Alaska and once in Oregon) who’s as selfless as he is talented.

Hepa’s unmitigate­d joy and bona fide passion for both the game and his teammates is palpable, whether he’s an inactive hype man or in the starting lineup. From the sideline he bellows helpful tips to teammates, shimmies after rimrocking dunks and saturates hollow arenas with much-needed energy. As the 6-foot-9 forward proved against Kansas State, he’s still got plenty of game.

With forwards Greg Brown, Kai Jones and Brock Cunningham inactive (COVID-19 protocols) against Kansas State, Hepa was thrust into a starting role for the first time since last February.

Hepa thrived. He connected on 5-of-8 3-pointers, grabbed three rebounds and supplement­ed one savage block with some frisky

smack-talk.

Prior to that 26-minute outing, Hepa had appeared in just three games for a total of seven minutes.

“My initial thoughts back in, I want to say in quarantine back in April when I was up in Alaska, was I was going to redshirt this upcoming year,” Hepa said. “Just because of the how our team was and the guys that we had, I thought that I would be better off myself and then help my teammates by not playing this year and focusing on other things, how I can control the game in other ways, contribute to the game in other ways.

“Then of course the NCAA came out saying that this was a free year for everybody. So coach Smart just pretty much told me to stay on ice and continue to embody the role that I do have and stay ready for whenever he calls my number.”

Hepa will recede back to the bench whenever Texas returns to full strength. That’s the role he’s accepted, the one he has continued to embrace. Few, if any Division I teams go as deep as UT.

There simply aren’t enough minutes to go around as the Longhorns push for their first Big 12 regular-season title since 2008.

And Hepa as a “break glass in case of emergency” option is proof enough of that.

With COVID-19 cases accelerati­ng and dozens of postponeme­nts or cancellati­ons occurring each week, the Arctic Circle import will stay ready even once he transition­s back into a sideline bullhorn and part-time coach.

“These guys all come in here as very highly touted and highly regarded individual players that all have very big individual goals, which they should,” Smart said. “But we asked them to come together around a common cause.

“And I joked with Kamaka. I said, ‘Man, you might set the record for the most times where you went from a DNP one game to a start the next game.’ But the reason he’s able to play so well is he’s always engaged all the time, every practice, every game. He always knows the scouting report and exactly what we need to do. He’s always working on his game. So I’m not surprised at all that he played well.”

 ?? Chuck Burton / Associated Press ?? UT’s Kamaka Hepa celebrates after a teammate’s 3-pointer against Kansas State on Saturday in Austin. Hepa himself hit 5 of 8 3-pointers in the win.
Chuck Burton / Associated Press UT’s Kamaka Hepa celebrates after a teammate’s 3-pointer against Kansas State on Saturday in Austin. Hepa himself hit 5 of 8 3-pointers in the win.

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