Sheldon McClellan found his stroke in the second half, helping Texas erase a 19-point deficit.
At the 17:48 mark of the first half, Julien Lewis hit a 12-foot jump shot for Texas' first two points of the game, trimming Cincinnati's early lead to 3-2. The Longhorns would not score again until Lewis hit a pair of free throws more than 10 full minutes later, and didn't make their second field goal of the game until the 5:52 mark of the half. In the interim, Cincy opened up a 16-2 lead and took a 31-17 lead into the half, before extending the margin to 19 points after scoring the first five points of the second half.
Then, and only then, did Texas finally start to play basketball. The Longhorns chipped into the lead over the first 8 minutes of the half and then, trailing 44-30, really turned it on, exploding on a 22-8 run that tied the game at 52 with 3:44 to play.
At which point Texas fell apart, Yancy Gates played a two-minute stretch like Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Bearcats' 6-0 spurt provided the final difference in the game.
And so it ended. So it had to end, seemingly.
Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like this year's Texas team -- so severely up and down not only from game to game, but half to half. Taking Kansas and Missouri one week, barely capable of beating a JV squad in Lubbock the next. Abominable in the first half against Kansas State, only to explode in the last 15 minutes to win by double digits. I seriously don't think I've ever seen a team vary so much in terms of its level of play.
In that sense, there was absolutely nothing shocking about what happened in Nashville this morning. On the other hand, at some point -- and for me at least, that point was nearly two months ago -- that it can't keep happening that same way each and every time. Teams that are capable of what Texas has shown in multiple halves shouldn't always pair great halves with terrible ones. If you're so clearly capable of a great half, surely you're at least capable of some at least average halves, as well. Not this team. It's been feast or famine all season long, starting with the Legends Classic in New Jersey.
Less surprising is that we fell short in the final minutes trying to close out the game. That's a trait you expect with young teams, but even so it only further highlights just how lethal those early deficits really are.
Today, the Bearcats opened the game playing obscenely aggressive defense, and if our players were absolutely right to wonder how the hell they were supposed to do anything with a defender out-and-out assaulting them, their reaction to the challenge only made things worse. They gave up transition buckets because they were complaining to officials. J'Covan Brown threw the ball off Clint Chapman in frustration. And the more they focused on what was happening to them -- instead of what they were doing -- the worse things got.
When the whistles finally started coming and a real basketball game actually began to be played, Texas settled in, but as has been the story an extraordinary number of times this season, it was just a little too late. It's a pity, because this team not only fights admirably hard, but are damn exciting to watch when they start to groove.
Unfortunately, we never got an answer to the question: "What would this team be capable of if they could avoid falling into such a big early hole?"
Clint Chapman gets a hero's salute following his final game in the burnt orange. The fifth-year senior kept us in the game in the first half with his defense and rebounding, and when it was all said and done walked off the floor having scored 10 points and grabbed 14 huge rebounds, to go along with 4 blocks and tough, admirable defense on Yancy Gates. Rick Barnes challenged his senior center to step up and take on Gates by himself for us, and though Cincinnati's talented and powerfully-built forward won his fair share of battles, Chapman held his production to levels we absolutely could live with. And hey, when a guy who was lucky to make 1 of 4 free throws steps out and takes a pair of 17-footers, that's exactly what you want. That he drained both of them was just one more sign that it wasn't our day. You'll sooner see Sheldon McClellan brick a breakaway dunk short off the rim. Oh. Right.
Sigh... It may not have been our day, but I was proud of the play from both Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis, as both freshmen delivered precisely the kind of production within our offense that we want and need from them. Lewis improved by leaps and bounds over the final six weeks of the season, learning about shot selection, and improving his mid-range game. McClellan likewise finished the season strong, becoming more and more productive as his confidence and comfort-level grew, and drastically improving his defense, which developed from a strong liability into a modest strength. I'm excited to see what both players are capable of doing as sophomores.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Texas' other freshman guard. Myck Kabongo was at best a non-factor against Cincinnati, and that would be the charitable interpretation of his play today. The mistakes he's made this season that are the stuff of inexperience are not of any concern, and for a freshman point guard, he was a very solid contributor. But as his debut season comes to a close, there are real questions about his make up, as perfectly demonstrated in a play during the first half when he drove the lane, found himself wide open 8 feet from the cup... and stopped, looking confused, before pivoting away from the basket and throwing the basketball straight at Yancy Gates feet -- an ill-advised, horribly executed, inexplicably decided upon, cheap imitation of a bounce pass.
It was a stunningly bad play, and not at all the type of mistake that was a product of pressure, or over-crowding, or moving fast and out of control. He moved and acted deliberately, except in away that belied any deliberation that makes sense. There's no question that he has elite skills, but as slowly as he's inched up the learning curve this season, one can fairly wonder if he will become an elite basketball player. He's young, and the transition to college basketball is a big one, but he's got a big leap to make between this year and next. There's no reason to quit on his potential, but he's got a lot of improving to do, and though he is very clearly a hard worker and eager learner, the amount of progress he made as a freshman raises questions.
Last but not least, though I'll have more to say about J'Covan Brown soon, before I head back to the television to watch more Tournament games, let me thank JCB for one of the best, most memorable individual seasons from a Texas basketball player in my lifetime. He didn't have an A+ game today -- the poor start and 5 crucial turnovers were terribly damaging -- but once he got it going, he was once more a joy to watch. Whether scoring buckets, playing strong post defense against a player with 3 inches and 20 pounds on him, or dishing make-you-holler dimes, there are few players who can affect a game in so many ways quite like J'Covan Brown does. I said it when he was a freshmen, and God forbid in case this is his last game at Texas I'll say it one more time: J'Covan is the best pure basketball player that Texas has had in the Rick Barnes era. To echo Wiggo: I'll go to war with that guy any time.
I'm not going to get into the coaching in this post, in part because I want to go watch more basketball, and in part because while I'm interested in talking critically about what Barnes did wrong today, and where he needs to get better in general, I'm not interested in talking about firing him. Unfortunately, that's not possible with a lot of our fans. I'll deal with it separately some other time.
Congrats to the 2011-12 Longhorns on a successful, if frustrating season. They fought hard, earned the right to play in the Tournament, and gave it their all. I'm proud of them, and wish they'd been able to put it all together.