Recency bias is a powerful thing, for both fans and players alike. You lose a couple tough road games you probably shouldn't have, and then drop one at home to a difficult K-State squad, and suddenly fans are in full panic mode, everything that came before it all but irrelevant.
It's understandable, and it's one reason why tonight's game in Waco felt like a must win (if a Top 4 seed tourney team can ever have such a thing). Had we lost, Texas would have finished the regular season 24-7 overall, 12-4 in Big 12 play... and Texas fans would have been utterly devastated.
Instead, the Longhorns rallied from a 9-point second half deficit to win 60-54 at Baylor and we're all jubilant. This win liberates us to bask in the satisfaction of this season, one which heading in we thought 20 wins overall, 10 in conference, would have been a huge success. We finished 25-6, 13-3 in Big 12 play. After the 11-0 start, it's disappointing we didn't win the Big 12 title, but that's recency bias. This year's 13-3 season isn't much less shocking than was Rick's 1998-99 run in his first year.
During his post-game interview Rick Barnes' voice was shaking. He was on the verge of tears. And I get it. Had the team lost, we'd all have been pointing fingers and searching for answers. Instead, we just get to appreciate what a remarkable season it has been. And forget how amazing that I feel. Imagine how Rick Barnes and his players feel. It's just impossible to overstate how big a win this was. Whatever happens going forward, this win assures that our beloved team will have the confidence to give the postseason its best shot. And if you've ever played the sport at a high competitive level, you know just how much that confidence matters in basketball.
Before moving on to the game review, let's make sure we soak in just how spectacular a season this one has been. TJ Ford's No. 1 seed, Final Four team? They went 26-7, 13-3. The Elite Eight Aldridge-Tucker-Gibson squad went 25-5, 13-3. The Augustin-led Elite Eight Longhorns in 2007-08 went 26-5, 13-3.
That's right: this year's Texas squad had as good a regular season as the best Texas Longhorns teams in history. No, they didn't win the Big 12 title, and yes, it was disappointing the way that they didn't, but really, we need to be clear about what a huge success that it was. The only real knock on this year's squad is that they weren't as successful as Kansas. And we beat the Jayhawks on their home floor.
Of all the many great things about tonight's win, at least where the fan perspective is concerned, none is bigger than the fact that we can talk about this team for what it is: a huge, unqualified success. I am so proud of this team, and this has been one of the most enjoyable teams to root for in my long Texas basketball memory. I hope you appreciate it as much as I do.
Now... with all that said... this was a pretty big one for the team, too, huh? Forget how we view this team as fans, this game mattered enormously for how these players and this team viewed themselves. And what was most impressive about it was that after a tight first half and yet another hot start for the opponent to the second half that saw them go up by 9, we came back to win.
Huge kudos to Rick Barnes, who after a difficult stretch in which his decisions didn't help us at Nebraska or at Colorado made the crucial adjustment that led to our win in Waco. LaceDarius Dunn was well on his way not only to becoming the Big 12's all-time leading scorer, but to putting Texas in a terrible position with another late-season loss, but with Cory Joseph struggling to contain the dynamic senior, Barnes made the decision to go with Gary Johnson defensively against Dunn, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dunn finished 8-19 for the game for 22 points, but the bulk of his misses came in the game's final 10 minutes, after Barnes put the longer Johnson on him. It was a brilliant move in that it put a bigger defender on Dunn who could challenge his shot and force Dunn to go to the rack, something the senior prefers not to do if he can help it. Baylor coach Scott Drew never counter-adjusted, Texas started getting stops, the Longhorns offense finally started to hit a few shots, Lexi hit a few free throws, and voila... we pick up our biggest road win since Lawrence.
That was one difference in the game. The other was Texas' improved free throw shooting. After hitting just 3-8 in the first half, the Longhorns hit 13-19 in the second half, which was good enough. None were bigger than the four down the stretch from Lexi Wangmene, who after a month of forgettable basketball gave Texas the kind of quality minutes we'd last seen in Greensboro. Wangmene hit four huge free throws, was active on the glass, and played strong post defense, an incredibly huge performance that we desperately needed with Matt Hill fading down the second half of the season, and Thompson a liability at the line.
Credit to Barnes as well in deciding to sit Dogus Balbay, who for all his virtues simply cannot play when the opposition isn't going to guard him. Yes, there are things we can do to mitigate that, but Dogus just doesn't seem willing to shoot it and there's not much sense in forcing the issue when his defense isn't essential to the game plan.
Tristan Thompson was... well, he was a pro out there tonight, and whatever happens in the postseason it's exciting to think what he's going to do for us next year when he adds upper body strength to complement his incredible lower body and athleticism. I still say he's coming back, but it won't be because he's not good enough to get drafted highly.
Finally, let me just say that perhaps the single greatest thing about finishing out with this win is what it's likely to do for Hamilton. He struggled again for big chunks of this game, but finished strong, and seemed highly motivated throughout. The fact of the matter is that we need him to be feeling good and scoring for this team to achieve its top-end potential, and tonight's win will be huge in that regard. His three down the stretch was one of the biggest buckets of the game, and the way the team pulled together for this win might be the catalyst that he needs to get rolling a bit again.
I bring that up because it's important to remember that while this team has struggled recently, a lot of it has just boiled down to Jordan Hamilton going through a slump. We can live with his slump offensively, but it clearly affected our defense as well, and that we can't afford. Tonight, though, Jordan played urgently and passionately on both ends of the floor, both defensively and as a rebounder, as did our entire team. And that was the most important thing that we needed to happen.
We won, and we won because we played great defense and dominated the boards. We didn't win because Hamilton was amazing; we won because we battled for it together, as a team. That was what we were all so desperate to see again, and that's what made tonight's win especially inspiring. We didn't play great. But we played together, and we played hard, and we did the things we had to do to win it.
It's easy when things are going well and you're up by 20+ points in the first half of every game. And it's really hard when you start to face adversity for the first time in a while and you haven't had to do all those little things to win.
We had to do them all to pick up the win tonight.
And we did.
Hook 'em Horns.
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