The #18 Longhorns survived the Red Storm on Saturday night at the Garden, 77-76. Even though it is only the fourth game of the year, this one was huge. Texas gained invaluable confidence by pulling out a close win against a quality and experience opponent. It wasn't easy though. Turnovers and poor defense almost allowed the less talented team to walk away victorious.
The Horns fell behind early 13-2 as St. John's made their first five shots from the field. Much like the night before, Texas bounced back quickly behind the hot outside shooting of Kevin Durant to take the lead at 19-17. Texas led for the rest of the first half before relinquishing the lead at the break, 45-44. St. John's was led back by the equally hot three point shooting of Avery Patterson. He nailed five first half threes to keep St. John's in the game.
Texas came out of half time smoking. The defense forced four turnovers in the opening minutes, blocked a shot, and contested another St. John's three pointer that was shot out of bounds. For a few minutes the defense was impressive and Coach Barnes was in heaven. The Horns were also converting on the other end. AJ Abrams knocked down one of his three made three pointers, DJ Augustin nailed a driving lay up, and Durant found an open Damion James under the basket in transition for an easy lay in. Texas led 56-45 at one point and looked to be running away with the consolation game.
The Red Storm came right back though. As Durant sat on the bench, St. John's went on a 10-0 run to tie the game at 60. It was obvious Barnes thought Durant needed a breather before the final minutes. KD didn't play well in the second half the night before and appeared to be laboring by settling for outside jump shots instead of attacking the rim. Many of Durant's jumpers in the second half against Michigan State came up short, an obvious sign of fatigue.
Although costly in the short run, Durant's rest may have made the difference in the game. Down 71-68, it was KD who nailed the open three to tie the game. Texas would not trail again. DJ Augustin nailed two free throws after being fouled taking the ball to the rim to put the Horns up 75-73. Augustin stole a bad pass on the other end and converted his solid defense into instant offense with a driving lay up. Unfortunately, his missed free throw left the Horns up only 77-73.
The missed foul shot also led to confusion defensively. Texas was playing man to man defense but two Texas defenders were matched up with one St. John's player leaving an open path for Eugene Lawrence to the basket. Augustin rotated over late and fouled Lawrence as he converted the easy lay up.
Lawrence made the foul shot and pulled the Red Storm to within one. With just seconds left St. John's was forced to foul. Jay Mason was sent to the line and promptly missed the front end of a one-and-one. St. John's last offensive possession was not a pretty one. Their deep three pointed at the buzzer missed and Texas survived.
The trip to NY was good but not great. They lost to Michigan State in a game they should have won and failed to close out the game against St. John's in a game they should have won by ten or more. Yet valuable lessons were learned by this young group.
This is a very young team that is still learning how to play together, how to make clutch free throws down the stretch, how to find shooters when sitting back in a 2-3 zone, how to determine whether a shot early in the shot clock is a good one, and how to rebound by blocking out first. I have already seen improvement in the first four games.
Texas's fans should be hesitant to write off potential greatness later this season. Will Texas be able to ride a freshman phenom to the national championship (ala Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony in 2003), will our young and talented freshman come together during conference play to challenge for the Big 12 title (ala Kansas in 2006), or will this team fail to progress like fans and Coach Barnes expect and stumble into the NCAAs only to lose in the first round? I don't have the answer but the ride to find out will be a fun one.
Review of individual performances coming soon.
Next Game: Nicholls State Tuesday 7 PM CST at the Erwin Center