Coming off of four straight wins, it looked like a Texas basketball team was finally peaking at the right time to take some momentum into March and secure a tournament bid that had been in serious jeopardy prior to those victories. A career-high 40 points from Oklahoma State senior guard Keiton Page and a massive advantage at the foul line (56 to 18) helped the Pokes kill any and all Longhorn momentum with a crushing, infuriating, frustrating, disappointing, unacceptable 90-78 loss on Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater.
Silly, senseless fouls helped the Cowboys bury the 'Horns in the first half behind 27 points from Page, who had scored only 21 in the previous five games against Texas and had, in fact, not scored a single basket from the field in the friendly confines of GIA since 2009. But the 'Horns fouled Paige three times on jumpshots in the first half, including two behind the arc when big men left their feet in ill-advised attempts to impact the diminutive guard's shots and another two trips to the line when Page was fouled off the ball.
Combine that with a defensive breakdown from Texas guard Julien Lewis early in the game that allowed Page an easy look at the basket to increase his confidence and Page was on his way to a career night.
Texas also suffered mightily in the first half as a result of the absence of starting point guard and major facilitator Myck Kabongo, who once again let his teammates down by taking himself out of the game after being one of the major perpetrators of those silly and senseless fouls that killed the Horns. The lightning-fast frosh gave one foul almost under his own basket following a turnover and then was responsible for one of the fouls committed against Page in the act of shooting after trailing Page off of a curl, a screen that Texas had a terrible time defending the entire game.
By the end of the first half, then, it was hardly a surprise to see Page hit a last-second three from well behind the arc, considering that he had already had several good looks and 14 made free throws to make the basket look that much bigger. Make no mistake here -- the 40 points that Texas gave up to the senior guard were a direct result of letting him gain confidence early. Had the 'Horns managed to contest Page enough early in the game to cause some misses and kept him off the line, it's entirely possible that he never would have even approached his career high in points.
But Texas failed to defend him well and Page, to his credit, took full advantage with the game of a lifetime, surpassing his previous career high of 29 points against Murray State by early in the second half and coming within two points of matching the Big 12 record for most points scored in a half.
Defensively, this may have been the worst performance of the season for Texas and the poor play went well beyond the effort against Page. As a team, the 'Horns failed to communicate on the back screens that Oklahoma State was setting, resulting in easy baskets at the rim, in addition to giving up several buckets on back-door cuts. The help defense was often late and ineffective when it ever came at all. For a coach who hangs his hat on defensive effort and execution, Rick Barnes will not be happy about this performance when he gets in the film room.
So even though Texas never gave up, particularly junior guard J'Covan Brown, who was part of a major surge in the second half that put the Longhorns in position to have a chance down the stretch, it was the porous defense that ultimately let the team down again, as Page shook JCB with an impressive crossover to knock down a monumental three before Alexis Wangmene decided it would be prudent to stand at the elbow and watch the ball while his man stood under the basket waiting to receive the ball to dunk it home.
After that, the game was once again out of reach as the Pokes closed it out at the free throw line.
If there was a positive for Texas, it was the play of freshman forward Sheldon McClellan, who continued his recent strong play with an efficient 15-point performance on only eight shots, hitting six of his attempts from the field. Of those 15 points, 10 came in the first half when McClellan was a major reason Texas was even in striking distance entering the final frame, taking advantage of his height and athleticism to exploit Page, who was inexplicably guarding him during much of the first 20 minutes.
If anything, the Longhorns did poorly in the second half not to feed McClellan more often and some of the blame there falls on Rick Barnes, who opted to start fellow freshman Julien Lewis in the second half instead of McClellan, despite the fact that Lewis turned the ball over several times in the first half, which played a major role in the Oklahoma State surge that initially created separation.
The bottom line is that McClellan needs to play more often, if not start, if the Longhorns want to have a chance down the stretch to make the tournament and advance past the first round.
Speaking of the NCAA tournament, the ramifications of losing this game are significant, if not catastrophic. With a number of other teams on the currently soft bubble losing, the dispiriting defeat in Stillwater didn't kill the Texas chances of making the field, or even make the Baylor or Kansas games must-wins. Take care of business against Oklahoma and Texas Tech and win two games in the Big 12 tournament, and there's a strong chance the 'Horns still make the tourney, even with loses against the Bears and Jayhawks.
That being said, however, the margin of error is extremely small for this team and a victory on Monday night at home against a Baylor team that could be reeling after a close home loss against Kansas State on Saturday would go a long way towards relieving some of that pressure. It's the biggest game of the season and an opportunity for the team to take a step forward once again after continuing the season-long trend of suffering significant setbacks following any signs of progress.