Whew! The Longhorns (19-7, 9-3) escape Waco with a 68-67 win over the Baylor Bears (12-13, 2-10). Our short trip up IH-35 nearly turned disastrous, as the Horns blew a nine point lead in the final minutes by missing crucial free throws and coughing up the ball twice in the backcourt.
Yes, a win is a win, but this one should have been easier. There's simply no reason the Horns shouldn't have left Waco with a double digit win and their heads held high after playing a solid second half on the road. Instead, they were left trying to catch their breath and thanking the iron for not being kind on a last second seventeen-footer.
Because we nearly blew this one, let's start with the Bad Stuff. Texas did absolutely everything wrong in the final minutes. They missed free throws, turned the ball over, and stopped playing solid man-to-man defense. With Baylor in an obvious fouling situation, Coach Barnes substituted JD Lewis into the game for the first time. Presumably, the thinking was that Lewis is a solid free throw shooter (75%) and would have no trouble knocking down at least one of two at the line, despite JD not playing in the last two games, or at all Saturday night.
Rick's thinking couldn't have been more wrong. Lewis calmly missed both of his free throw attempts: Clank. Clank. BON has been proclaiming our collective admiration for Barnes this past week after he climbed to the top of the career wins list at UT, but this move has to be questioned. There's really no reason to put Lewis in the game at that junction, and Barnes' poor decision just about bit Texas in the ass. (PB, by the way, phoned to say that he's vowing to ask Barnes about the move this week at Pluckers) Quite frankly, there's no reason for Lewis to be in the game at any point, let alone in crunch time. Heading into the Baylor game, Lewis was shooting under 30% from the floor and from three-point range. As has been discussed many times in this space before - Lewis is a liability on defense, doesn't shoot well, and needs to remain on the bench. Look, we're all for having a smart substitution at the end of the game which puts a rock-solid shooter type in the game for strategic purposes. I'm just sick of Rick Barnes sending in JD Lewis to fail in that role.
With a chance to ice the game, Lewis sustained his cold shooting by bricking two free throws and Baylor capitalized with a driving shot in the paint to cut the lead to four. Augustin then uncharacteristically turned the ball over, Henry Dugat made the Horns pay with another three-pointer, and the lead was cut to just one point. The ball again went into Augustin, but this time, he held on to the ball and was fouled. With another chance to put the game away, Augustin also came up empty at the line. Clank. Clank. Fortunately for Texas, Baylor was out of timeouts, scrambled up the floor with just 10 seconds left, and heaved a desperation shot to win at the buzzer which banked off the backboard, around the rim, and down to the floor to safety.
The bottom line is that the Longhorns must do a better job of closing out games and avoid playing to the level of their competition. Earlier this year, Texas dropped two games - at Tennessee and at Oklahoma State - simply because they weren't able to close the door. Tonight, against a less talented team, the 'Horns pulled out the win in spite of themselves.
Texas also continues to struggle defending the three-pointer - especially when playing the 2-3 zone. Baylor knocked down ten three-pointers for the game, and had they had made one or two more, we'd be talking about another heartbreaking loss on the road.
Other downers were AJ Abrams in the second half and our work on the defensive glass. Abrams played solidly in the first half and scored 10 points, including two three-pointers, but wound up a non-factor in the second half with just two points.
The Horns were absolutely killed on the defensive glass. Baylor grabbed 19 offensive rebounds to just 23 defensive rebounds for the Horns, and the Bears convered the extra looks into 17 points. Only Durant and Atchley were active on the boards in the second half, which helped the less talented Bears hang around.
Now, there was some Good Stuff. The biggest positive is the Win. The Horns have now won three straight and return to Austin with a very winnable game against Texas Tech. Despite poor zone defense tonight. . . despite an off night shooting from Durant. . . despite Augustin getting into foul trouble. . . and despite Texas' inability to close out the game. . . we still won. The Longhorns are now alone in third place at 9-3 in the Big 12, and despite the fact that this team should be 10-2 or 11-1, we have to be happy with our position heading into the home stretch.
Concluding tonight's thoughts: Connor Atchley was the player of the game. I really never thought I'd wind up writing that, but there's no doubt that he keyed tonight's victory. Atchley scored a career high 15 points, secured eight rebounds (including four offensive ones), played physical defense, and outhustled everyone else on the floor. Without Atchley's contributions, it's very difficult to imagine Texas winning tonight's game. . . His presence was that strong. Kudos to Connor for being the catalyst in both victories over Baylor this season.
Other: Augustin attacked the basket effectively tonight when he was in the game; unfortunately, he sat out the last few minutes of the first half and basically the first six or seven minutes of the second half after picking up his second and third fouls. DJ scored 11 points and found Atchley and Durant a couple times for easy baskets, but he must do a better job of recognizing a collapsing defense on the dribble drive and using a jump stop instead of crashing into a set defender. As much as Lewis' misses hurt Texas, DJ's two turnovers and two missed free throws were just as costly. Overall, this just wasn't one of DJ's best performances, and he wound up finishing with just four assists against nine turnovers.
Durant really struggled from the floor tonight, finishing 5-for-16 from the field. KD made up for his off night shooting with outstanding free throw shooting and elite defensive rebounding. For a few minutes in the second half, Durant was the only one getting his hands on any Baylor misses. He wound up credited with 14 rebounds, and all but one came on the defensive glass. Kevin's free throw stroke also looked much better this evening, as he nailed 9-of-10. Unfortunately, when DJ wasn't on the floor, Durant became nearly invisible in the half court offense. Neither Abrams nor Justin Mason know how to feed KD the ball, and it's becoming clear that when DJ goes out, Durant probably needs to move to the perimeter and not allow himself to be double teamed without the ball.
The Longhorns grabbed their third straight in a 'must win' game, but didn't look solid in the process. Texas must do a better job defending the three-pointer, rebounding, and finding ways to get Durant touches in the half-court. Time is running out for this team to put it all together, and it's going to take a much more consistent performance to win any of our final four games.
Next Game: Texas Tech Tuesday at the Drum 8 PM (ESPN+)