Game Recap: The Texas Longhorns improved to 17-7 overall and 6-4 in the Big XII play by outlasting Colorado, 85-76, in an overtime game that had no business going to an extra period. The good news is the Longhorns are now alone in fourth place in the conference, a half game ahead of Kansas State, and control their own destiny for a top four seed in the conference tournament in Oklahoma City. The bad news is the ‘Horns once again blew lead after lead and let another opponent hang around for the entire 40 minutes.
In an unlikely turn of events, Texas got off to a fast start on the road and led at each of the television timeouts in the first half. AJ Abrams had 10 first half points and Damion James was aggressive on both ends with 11 points and a couple of rebounds. Texas had a chance to take control of the game as they led 30-15 before allowing Colorado back in the game with a 17-6 Buffalo run to end the half. Texas led just 36-32 at the break.
The second half was much like the first. Texas extended their lead to 50-40 behind hot shooting from Abrams, probing drives from Dogus Balbay, and excellent rebounding by James. Of course, the lead was not to hold. Cory Higgins, who was basically unguardable (34 points), led Colorado back to within two, 54-52.
Texas answered once again with a couple of threes from Abrams and extended the Longhorns’ to lead 68-59 with just over four minutes left in the game. Some questionable foul calls and timely shooting by CU from the line and by Higgins from the floor allowed the Buffaloes to tie the game at 70 with just over a minute go to.
It was Varez Ward’s time to shine. Ward saved an errant Abrams jumper from going out of bounds and eventually ended up sinking two free throws after an aggressive move to the basket. Those two points would have been the difference in the game if not for another questionable foul call on the other end. Jermy Jackson-Wilson knocked down both of his free throws to tie the game at 72 with six seconds left.
In what I thought was a brilliant coaching move, Rick Barnes called timeout between Jackson-Wilson’s free throws to set up a play. Had he waited to call a timeout after he sank his second, then the defense would have been set. The strategy worked and a scrambled defense fouled James on a 12 foot jumper. Damion headed to the line for two foul shots and a chance to win the game. There was under two seconds left in the game and realistically, he needed to sink just one-of-two to win the game. It was not to be.
Thankfully, Texas owned overtime, 13-4, and escaped Boulder with a harder than necessary victory.
The outcome was: Life Shortening. In most of our close games, it has been the offense which has been unable to score enough points to pull away. Well, yesterday’s game was a little different. With Abrams and James clicking and Balbay distributing the ball with confidence, the offense was more than efficient enough to defeat the Buffaloes. It was the defense which failed to show up. It was the Longhorns inability to play defense without fouling and complete inability to disrupt the rhythm of Cory Higgins that was the most frustrating. Higgins became the third Longhorn opponent to score 34 or more points (Denis Clemente, KSU and James Anderson, OSU) in the last two weeks. Despite sending CU to the line for 29 attempts and despite Higgins going off, Texas still had the chance to win the game in regulation with a simple free throw. Two bricks by James and the season-long free throw woes continued. Earlier in the season, it was the defense which kept the Longhorns in games while the offense sputtered. Now, Balbay’s presence was kick started the offense but the defense is faltering. The frustrations continue.
Stats of the Game: Colorado 111.3 adjusted offensive efficiency, 56% field goal percentage in regulation, and 25-of 29 (86%) free throw percentage. Only Texas Southern in mid-December was able to achieve a higher offensive efficiency against the Longhorns. Thankfully, Texas shot over 50% in the first half and over 60% in the second half themselves, because if they had not, the hot shooting of Colorado would have been more than enough to pull off the upset. Last, yes there were some questionable whistles; however, Texas must be better at playing defense without fouling. James, Balbay, Ward, Connor Atchley, and Gary Johnson all ended the game with four fouls each! If Colorado had pushed Texas to a second overtime, the game could have easily been decided with Matt Hill, Clint Chapman, and Harrison Smith on the floor.
The Offensive MVP was: AJ Abrams This is a no brainer. Without AJ in Boulder, Texas loses. Take a look at the line: 29 points (11-of-19 field, 5-of-11 from three), one rebound, one assist, and three steals. Oh yeah, and he played all 45 minutes in altitude. If that wasn’t impressive enough, it was when he made his jumpers that was even more crucial. Colorado cut the lead to 54-52 and AJ responded on the other ended with a three. Minutes later, CU tied the game at 57 only to watch Abrams sink another three to put Texas back ahead. And then the backbreaker came with Texas up 78-74. Colorado has just missed a three pointer of its own and need a stop desperately to stay within striking distance. Abrams’ fifth three of the game put Texas up 81-74 and effectively ended CU’s upset chances. There have been plenty of games in the last two years where Texas fans have easily pointed out how Abrams forced jumpers and shot the Longhorns out of games. This was just the opposite: AJ shot Texas to the victory. Well done.
The Defensive MVP was: No one As mentioned above, the Texas defense really struggled against CU. And the saddest part is Colorado only has one offensive threat, Higgins. A&M is no offensive juggernaut but Oklahoma on Saturday and Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Kansas down the stretch can all hurt defenses in multiple ways. Our last excellent defensive game came at Texas Tech a month ago. For this team to make it out of the first weekend in the NCAA tournament, Rick Barnes must locate our November and December defense fast.
(1) Balbay’s Influence. In the last two games, Dogus has 14 assists to just two turnovers. A 2:1 assist to turnover ratio is acceptable and a 3:1 ratio is outstanding. Sure, we are looking at a very small sample but 7:1 is unbelievable. You can also see the game slowing down for Balbay as well. He is pushing the ball in the full court when it’s there and waiting for his teammates when it is not. He is also reading defenses well and attacking the junk defenses or sagging zones effectively. Balbay’s penetration and ability to finish near the rim or kick the ball to the baseline for open looks is exactly what has been lacking with Justin Mason or AJ Abrams at the point. Mason can get to the rim off the dribble but is nowhere near the passer that Balbay is. Abrams is less effective off the dribble and is more comfortable with runners and floaters than dishing the ball after turning the corner. There are still going to be rough spots for Dogus but Balbay will be your starting point guard the rest of the season.
(2) Dexter Pittman Dilemma Those of you calling for more minutes for Pittman are not watching the same game. This is what I wrote after the Nebraska game last weekend:
Let’s look at Pittman’s line: seven points (3-of-4), six rebounds, one turnover, and four fouls in 13 minutes. Unless Pittman is able to stay out of foul trouble, which seems unlikely anytime Texas plays man with him on the floor, then Texas must change their offensive philosophy. PB talked about this in the Texas Basketball report: our offensive is so inefficient in the half court that playing full court with five great athletes on the floor is probably our best bet for this season.The insertion of Balbay has improved the offense but that doesn’t mean that Texas can afford to have Pittman on the floor more often. It is the other end of the court that is the most problematic. Unfortunately, Dexter cannot defend without fouling and consequently, Texas must play zone with Pittman in the game. As you’ve seen in the last few games, our 2-3 zone stinks. Texas has played almost no zone this entire season, so there is no reason to expect the Longhorns to be able to play an effective 2-3 zone now. When Pittman plays, the Longhorns play zone and get torched from the outside. When Pittman plays and the Longhorns play man, defenses attack Pittman or use Pittman’s man to set high ball screens. Dex is too slow laterally to hedge properly and the entire defense breaks down. Some of you may be screaming, "He is an offensive force." You will get no disagreement from be about that. However, it does Texas no good to get two points with Dex on one end only to have his presence give up two or maybe three points on the other end. Dexter has improved tremendously in his three years in Austin; he is also a lovable, hard-working athlete who gives Texas an offensive punch off the bench. However, at this point in his development, he is an offensive spark not a block to build a team around.
(3) 9-7 may not be enough. After the three game losing streak, I set a new goal of a top four Big XII finish and a first round bye in the conference tournament. After looking at the schedules of Kansas State and Texas more closely, 9-7 will probably be good enough for a tie with Kansas State for fourth but not good enough to earn the bye, as KSU would hold the tiebreaker. KSU is 6-5 right now. Their remaining conference schedule is at Iowa State (win), at Missouri (loss), Nebraska (win), at Oklahoma St (loss), and Colorado (win). The Wildcats are certain to get two of those and likely to get three and therefore finish at 9-7 in conference. How then does Texas get to 10-6? The Longhorns are 6-4 and need wins over Texas Tech and Baylor at home to get to eight. The last two are more difficult to identify. Texas would need two of three from at A&M, Oklahoma at home, and at Oklahoma State. Likely? No. Possible? Yes. After Saturday night’s game against the Sooners we will know if this is still possible.
NEXT GAME: AWAY at Texas A&M – Monday 2/16 8:00 p.m. ESPN