The Longhorns celebrated the end of a brutal six-game stretch with a comfortable 74-57 victory over visiting Texas Tech, improving their record to 14-9 overall, 4-6 in Big 12 play. Texas started fast, opening the game on a 7-0 run that they quickly extended to a 17-4 lead just over five minutes into the game, and the Red Raiders were never able to make a game of it. The Longhorns led 40-25 at half and built a commanding 22-point lead midway through the second half before coasting in to the finish line.
Three Loghorns scored in double digits, led by Clint Chapman, whose 20 points and 9 rebounds were both team highs, while J`Covan Brown and Sheldon McClellan added 17 points apiece. The strong scoring from Chapman and Brown is most welcome, of course, but it was McClellan's improved contributions that are the most important to the Longhorns down the stretch. After struggling with all-around consistency, and especially with his defense, McClellan had steadily seen both his production and minutes sink throughout much of January. But Rick Barnes gave him the starting nod tonight (apparently at least in part because Julien Lewis was returning from an uncle's funeral), and McClellan immediately and forcefully responded.
On Texas' very first possession McClellan attacked Ty Nurse with his dribble, creating space and connecting on a pretty shot close in. Again on UT's second possession McClellan attacked with his dribble, sucking the defense in towards the paint before kicking it out to Myck Kabongo, who drilled a three. Two possessions later, McClellan confidently stepped into and drained a 15-footer to put Texas up 9-2, and shortly after that he was the offensive catalyst yet again when he penetrated the lane and lofted a floater that bounced short off the rim but fell into the arms of Jonathan Holmes, who was free for the offensive rebound thanks to the defensive attention drawn by McClellan.
All told, Texas' talented freshman wing opened the first five minutes of the game with 6 points on 3-4 shooting, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and another unofficial assist created by his attacking penetration. He finished the game a solid 7-11 from the floor, including 1 of 2 from beyond the arc, providing the scoring offense this Texas team desperately needs him to provide. It's not at all impossible for the Longhorns to win 6 of their final 8 games, but it's hard to imagine them doing so without McClellan taking a step forward to become a more consistently productive scorer. In that regard, tonight's effort was a most welcome one, and particularly encouraging because of the assertiveness McClellan demonstrated in attacking the defense and looking for points. He's ridiculously athletic and deceptively difficult for a defender to stay with, but he's still scratching the surface in terms of harnessing that ability and learning how to consistently channel it as a scorer. More, more, more please, Sheldon.
Beyond the important scoring contribution from McClellan, it was good to see the team as a whole playing with focus and taking care of details. Texas was strong on the glass at both ends of the floor, scooping up 16 of their own 31 misses, while limiting Tech to just 10 second chances on their 32 missed shots. Likewise, the Longhorns did a good job playing purposefully and under control -- giving up 11 turnovers to the Red Raiders' 14. Texas outplayed Texas Tech in the paint, in transition, on team defense, and in running offense and -- especially -- working hard to get to the line, dominating the contest from the stripe by connecting on 25 of 31 attempts while Tech managed just 14 free throws, making 9.
You can't get too carried away with a home win over a team as young, raw, and, well, winless, as Texas Tech. I expected about a 20-point margin of victory, and that's more or less what we saw. Even in context, we saw some encouraging and potentially important things tonight, and now it's all about carrying it over and into a more difficult challenge.
Texas will get that challenge in two short days, as they travel to College Station for Big Monday. Following their loss today in Manhattan, the Aggies now sit at just 3-7 in conference play, but A&M is 3-2 at Reed Arena, with wins over Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, bracketed by a blowout loss to Iowa State and a narrow 3-point defeat to Baylor last week. As offensively inconsistent as are the Aggies, this year's trip to Reed looks more winnable than normally seems likely in College Station, but even amidst such a disappointing season the Longhorns can bet that both the team and fans will be eager to win the final meeting at their place.