The Texas Longhorns basketball team pulled through in the clutch to pick up an enormously important road win at Texas A&M (12-11, 3-8), closing out a 70-68 win over the Aggies to improve to 14-9 overall, 5-6 in Big 12 play. In a game they absolutely had to win to preserve any realistic chance of getting to the critical 10-win mark in conference play, the Longhorns finally emerged victorious in a game that came down to the wire, after dropping each of their first seven games this season that were decided by six points or less.
Monday night's game was a textbook example of how and why it can be so incredibly difficult to win on the road in the Big 12, even against teams in the bottom third of the conference. Texas A&M is a horrible shooting team and has been absolutely putrid on offense all season long, and when you're talking about an Aggies offense without Khris Middleton, any opposing offense that manages to play relatively well against A&M's excellent defense shouldn't have anything to worry about. Tonight Texas did just that, but despite the Longhorns very solid offensive performance, the Aggies managed to hang in the game thanks to a hot night on their home court -- both shooting the ball and getting the whistles.
On the first count, the Longhorns' shoddy defensive effort is partly to blame, but seriously, the Aggie offense normally isn't one to discriminate on the basis of defensive quality. They just suck, and if you'd told me Texas would play well on offense and get to 70 points, I'd have been relaxed from the opening tip. At times it looked like Texas would indeed pull out to a comfortable lead and leave A&M behind, but the Middleton-less Aggies managed to connect on 5 of 10 three pointers and 23 of 29 free throws, including a pair after Jonathan Holmes forgot to say "Excuse me" after sneezing. All you need to know about the officiating is that the the Aggie Yell Leader finished the game with the "Beat The Hell Out Of The Official's Daughter" chant still in his overall pocket, and after the game no one in the crowd was calling to punish the Yell Leader with a nuts squeeze. (Or is that a reward for good behavior? I forget.)
Texas really did play well offensively, on a night when anything less would have resulted in a textbook Big 12 road loss: your team doesn't shoot the ball very well, the other team plays over their head on the offensive end, and the officials let them mug you while bailing them out on the other end. Honestly, it happens all the time, every year, and the only difference this year was that we're in a position where we can't afford to absorb the loss. We have to find a way to win at Stillwater, Norman, and Lubbock. And we absolutely had to win the game in College Station tonight.
We pulled it out largely because we delivered one of our most solid all-around offensive performances of the season relative to the defensive competition. The Longhorns shot a crisp 25-52 from the floor, including 6 of 11 from downtown, and -- most important of all -- picked up 14 assists, against just 8 turnovers. On the road against an opponent that's shooting it hot and racking up trips to the line, there's no way Texas wins that game if those ratios are skewed the other way even slightly. Although it's not so surprising to see J`Covan Brown (7 assists) and Myck Kabongo (5) have a strong night setting up teammates, you knew it was a good night when Julien Lewis rose for a jump shot only to fire a beautiful bullet into the post for an easy deuce.
Not that you particularly expect the Aggies to make you pay for it, but on the other side of the court the 'Horns turned in an uncharacteristically tepid defensive performance. We did a poor job of identifying and closing out shooters, were sloppy in our pick defense, and mentally unsound in defending the post. McClellan continues to get lost on the perimeter, Kabongo's defense looked more like what we saw from him in November than January, and Clint Chapman played unfathomably stupid defensive basketball. The other two are freshmen, but my patience with the senior Chapman is worn thin. I have half a mind to try and find time this week to bust out the "Snap Shots" series for basketball, so I can illustrate each of the things he does that drive me up the wall. It's not that he's incapable of contributing strong defensive play, it's that he often contributes really stupid, senseless, counterproductive play, like the ten times per game that he tries to block a shot that (a) he has zero chance of blocking and (b) is being contested perfectly well by one of Chapman's teammates. I'm not sure which we've paid more for that sin with: easy put-backs or needless fouls trying to prevent the easy put-back.
In any event, it's the strong offense that's more often eluded this team, and if we're turning a corner in that regard, there's very much reason to hope we might close out this season like we must. We got a great half from Sheldon McClellan, valuable contributions from Kabongo in the open court, another brilliant performance from J`Clutch, and just enough from everyone else to get the job done.
Kudos, as well, both to the players and to Rick Barnes, who combined to close out the tight game with a picture-perfect final 1:09 of the game. Trailing 67-66 after a comical pair of possessions in which the officials silently watched Chapman take an elbow to the face and then whistled Julien Lewis for a touch foul when Elston Turner tripped on his own feet, Barnes took a 30-second timeout and drew up a high double-screen on top of a cleared-out left side of the floor, springing J'Covan for a driving lay up past a big man who couldn't keep up. Texas then made a terrific defensive stand that resulted in a steal by Kabongo, who after sprinting across halfcourt pulled up from a tempting fast break and wisely passed it to Brown, the Longhorns' best free throw shooter. Finally, after Brown's two free throws put us up 69-66 and A&M took a timeout to draw up their final play, Barnes put the long-armed Alexis Wangmene on Elston Turner, who wasted 10 precious seconds struggling to separate for a shot. Kabongo then committed a smart foul on Turner with just 3 seconds left, and A&M's only hope to tie was a made free throw, followed by a miss, rebound, and score.
Didn't happen, and in the final regular season match up with Texas A&M, the Longhorns completed the season sweep, picking up as important a win over the Aggies as they've ever had.
After the game, no one said it better than Manny Diaz: