Game Recap: It certainly wasn't pretty down the stretch, but Texas improved to 21-4 on the season and 8-2 in Big 12 play with an 82-77 win over Baylor in Waco on Saturday night. With just 3:01 remaining in the game, Texas held a commanding 76-62 lead over the Bears, but a steady stream of miscues allowed Baylor (17-7, 5-5) to get back in the game. With just 28 seconds remaining, Baylor pulled to within one point of the 'Horns, 77-76. Texas proceeded to turn the ball over on the inbounds to AJ Abrams, who got himself trapped in the corner, giving Baylor the basketball with a chance to take the lead. But senior guard Aaron Bruce inexplicably called a timeout, allowing Texas a chance to extend its lead with the clock stopped.
After Abrams made one of two free throws, Baylor inbounded the ball and had a wide open three point attempt that would have given them the lead, but the shot fell short, Connor Atchley rebounded, and Texas finally put the game away.
The late collapse dampened what was otherwise an outstanding night for Texas. The Longhorns dominated the Bears in the frontcourt - especially in the first half - played outstanding perimeter defense, and generally controlled the game from the opening tip. You almost have to separate this game into the first 37 minutes, and the final 3. For the bulk of the game, this was the outstanding Texas basketball team we've seen throughout much of this season. For the final three minutes, we looked like a team which didn't have a clue.
The outcome was: Fans simply must set aside the piss poor play in the game's final three minutes. Hell, you could even spin the wild final minutes into a good thing, teaching the team a thing or two about putting teams away. Either way, the final outcome is huge for this team - a road win against a solid Big 12 squad, keeping us on pace with Kansas and Kansas State in the loss column in the Big 12 standings. Heading into this game, I was extremely worried about the team stumbling on the road. We may have stumbled down the stretch, but we got the win. And that's what we needed.
Stat Of The Game #1: I can dismiss the general sloppiness down the stretch, but the poor free throw shooting didn't just pop up out of nowhere. This has been and remains a huge problem for this Texas team. As we get into tight competition against elite teams, now and in March, that kind of foul shooting just won't cut it if the team has grander ambitions than winning a game or two in the NCAAs.
Stat Of The Game #2: The opposite of these teams' first meeting in Austin a few weeks ago, when Baylor built a 14-point lead on blistering shooting from downtown in the first half. Tonight Texas did a much better job of moving over screens, contesting jump shots, and frustrating Baylor's guards (who they depend on offensively). The Bears got hot late, but even with all our party favors, it wasn't enough. Thanks in large part to our vastly improved defensive effort on the perimeter, especially in the first half.
The Offensive MVP was: It's tempting to give this honor to Damion James, who was a matchup nightmare for Baylor all night long, but I thought the most important thing we saw tonight was the continued evolution of DJ Augustin from Point Guard Who Heaves Texas On His Back As A Scorer to DJ Augustin, Well-Rounded Point Guard. Here's the thing: DJ's in some kind of awful shooting/scoring slump, but he's not struggling to get into the lane as a penetrator. And though it's been a slow, sometimes ugly transition, DJ is now using his ability to draw defenders to help his teammates score. So long as teams were letting him, he was right to penetrate and score. However, as teams have adjusted, he's made some bad decisions with the ball in the paint. But more and more of late, he's now drawing defenders and making the pass to open guys who are finishing for him. It might be the most important development of the season. Pick your poison, right?
The Defensive MVP was: Until Baylor got hot in the latter half of the game, this was one of our best team defensive efforts on the season - and certainly on the perimeter. Overall, we're playing infinitely better defense than we were to start this season. I'm encouraged.
Lots Of Things: We're just that much more dynamic when we've got Johnson as an inside presence. You can literally see his comfort and confidence develop with each game, and it helps everyone on the team. Pre-Gary, we spent far too much of our time on offense simply running the weave on the perimeter. With Johnson's emergence, we're able to pass to the post. He's scoring much better than he was when he first took the floor, and even if he's not, he's at least keeping the opposing defense honest. His contributions aren't just what show up in the box score - he makes us infinitely more well-rounded overall.
Ho-hum: 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal. Oh, and he played 40 minutes. AW and I insisted throughout his slump that he'd be fine in the long run, and Rick Barnes deserves credit for getting him back into a good place where he's not out there wondering whether he deserves to even touch the rock. The jump shot remains shaky, but he's doing everything else well. Defense, hustle, rebounding, and a renewed desire to get to the rim. Awesome stuff.
He hit on three of his five attempts from downtown tonight and is now settled nicely into his role in the offense: a shooting threat that makes life hard for opponents. He can score if he's allowed, and if not, he's occupying defensive capital. I still want to see him play tougher around the rim - like his idol AI - but beyond that, his shot selection is improving and he's hitting his three again. We need this.
Connor with three more blocks tonight. It's deceptive because he's not an elite athlete, but the guy gets his hands on the basketball like no one I've ever seen at Texas. For his size and athleticism, he's absolutely incredible.
19 points, 10 boards, 2 blocks. He adds a dimension to this team we can't live without. Remember that come March. If he's out there for 35-40 minutes a game, we're as tough to beat as anyone. If he's in foul trouble... we're in trouble.
Just in case we don't say this often enough... He's terrific. I think we sometimes understimate how difficult it is to achieve this level of success, this consistently. And what I really love is that when I have a complaint about what Rick's doing, he seems to be right on top of it. Players develop. Teams improve. And we continue to perform at a Top 10 level, year in and year out. A hat tip to you, sir.
Home vs. Texas A&M – Monday 2/18 8:00 p.m. ESPN