Facing Its Own Mortality, Texas Finds a Way To Stay AlivePosted by dnspewak on March 9th, 2012
Danny Spewak is a Big 12 Microsite writer and will provide wall-to-wall coverage of the Big 12 Tournament from the Sprint Center in Kansas City this weekend. He filed this piece after Texas’ 71-65 victory over Iowa State. You can follow him on Twitter @dspewak.
There was a moment early in the second half Thursday night when it appeared Texas and its three freshmen starters would unravel in its most important game of the season. Trailing by 11 with 18:22 remaining in its NCAA Tournament life, the Longhorns looked like the team that fell apart in a 19-point loss at North Carolina in late December. Like the team that lost six of its first nine Big 12 games by an average of 4.6 points.
Then, something clicked. “We’re not young anymore,” freshman point guard Myck Kabongo said. “We’ve grown up. We’ve shown strides, every single one of us.” With Kabongo running the show, the Longhorns sliced their way to the rim and denied the Cyclones’ looks from beyond the arc by eliminating dribble penetration. J’Covan Brown, the league’s leading scorer, began to abuse Chris Allen. As Iowa State’s layups rimmed out and its guards turned the ball over, the Longhorns’ threes began to fall. And just like that, Texas saved its NCAA Tournament hopes with a 71-65 victory in one nine-minute stretch. “That’s the ball game. They made big plays. I thought we put our heads down a little bit as a team,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They made big plays down the stretch and we didn’t.”
Brown made the biggest play of them all, breaking a tie with a three-point play with 36 seconds remaining on a nifty spin move. In that final minute, coach Rick Barnes said he notice a certain maturity to his team — especially from Kabongo, the target of several of his tirades in practice on Wednesday. According to Barnes, Kabongo suggested Jaylen Bond enter the game in the final minute so the Longhorns could switch on ball screens. “Of all the things he’s done this year,” Barnes said. “I’m telling you. He’s heading in the right direction.” Kabongo finished with five assists and zero turnovers, a critical statistic for a team that relies so heavily on his play at point guard. The Longhorns may not have entirely sealed an at-large bid, but most analysts agreed they would probably head to the NIT with a quarterfinal loss in the Big 12 Tournament. Barnes admitted he used that as motivation at halftime with his team trailing by four points.
“[I told them], ‘Let’s just say we’re on the bubble. Let’s just say that. If I wrote down NIT or NCAA, which one would you put your name under, right now? Whichever one you want — I can assure you, you’re going to have to earn it,” Barnes said. “Yeah, I was upset. I didn’t think we came out and did what we needed to do. But we fought back. This team has done that all year.” Royce White led Iowa State with 17 points, tallying another double-double with 10 rebounds. It wasn’t enough for the Cyclones to overcome that poor start to the second half, though. “My performance was not good enough. Especially when you think about the first five minutes is the most important, and I came out and turned it over,” White said. It just wasn’t good enough, we’ll have to get better here in the next week if we’re going to make a run in the tournament.”
Besides White, Barnes said his team stuck to the game plan better than any other game this season. In practice on Wednesday, Barnes emphasized shutting down the Cyclones’ three-point attack. He singled out Christopherson, telling his team to clamp down on him in particular and shut down any driving guard who could deliver him the ball on the perimeter. “You’ve gotta give it to our guards,” Barnes said. “We talked about it for two days, just being on edge away from the ball because they’re an extremely hard team to guard.”
Texas now faces Missouri in the semifinals Saturday, a team it lost to twice this season. If the Longhorns pull the upset, the NCAA Tournament selection committee may have a difficult time denying them a spot. Barnes, who has made the NCAA Tournament in all 13 of his seasons in Austin, has made it clear to his team that it must fight to stay alive. “He never gave up on us,” Brown said. “So we didn’t.”