You can outplay an opponent in basketball, and still lose. It doesn't happen very often -- this isn't hockey after all -- but it can happen. And it almost happened tonight. In a game that Texas controlled almost from the opening tip, things got a little tight at the end as the Longhorns struggled with both turnovers and missed free throws -- especially missed free throws -- down the stretch.
But the Longhorns held on. With the score set at 63-62 Texas, and 24 seconds on the clock, Javan Felix hit two free throws to put Rick Barnes' squad up by three.
And then, after a series of missed free throws and turnovers by Texas, it was Vanderbilt's turn to make an unforced error. To tie the game, Vandy coach Kevin Stallings called Eric McClellan's number. The play set up a drift screen to free up McClellan from three. But the Vanderbilt guard, who at that point had dropped 20 on the Horns, tripped over the foot of the screener and stumbled to the ground, watching and flailing as the pass sailed over his head towards the Vanderbilt bench. The ball made it all the way there.
Connor Lammert received the ensuing in-bounds pass and found Demarcus Holland streaking down the court for a layup. Holland converted the layup, was fouled, and finished off the three point play at the line. After an Eric McClellan layup, Jonathan Holmes drained two more free throws, which set the final score at 70-64 Texas. The Horns, who had nearly lost the game at the stripe, ended up closing it out there.
Early in the game, the Longhorns built a lead behind strong three point shooting, sound defense, and a balanced attack. Until a couple of late turnovers, Isaiah Taylor played a nearly flawless game, scoring 14 points, dropping eight dimes, and beating the Commodore defense off the dribble whenever he wanted. Taylor turned his ankle in the first half and had to leave the court for a few minutes, but he soon returned and showed no effects of the putative injury. Demarcus Holland, Kendal Yancy, and Javan Felix also scored in double figures.
The Longhorns played their best game of the year on defense, holding a solid Vanderbilt offense to 0.88 points per possession. The Longhorns forced turnovers and limited clean looks from three, while the trio of Jonathan Holmes, Prince Ibeh, and Cameron Ridley played through first half foul trouble while still managing to protect the rim. You can survive a difficult night at the free throw stripe when you play defense like this.
This Texas team plays with energy and hustle -- and joy, even. About half the players can't shoot free throws worth a damn, but they do enough else well that it is hard to stay angry at them.