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Texas One Win from Big XII Title

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Game Recap: After blowing a 17 point second half lead, the #9 Texas Longhorns (25-5, 12-3) managed to sink six straight clutch free throws in the final minute to hold off the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 70-66. It wasn’t pretty and the porous half-court defense, that plagued the Longhorns in Lubbock, reared it’s head for the second straight game, but a win is a win. The ‘Horns are now just a single home win over Oklahoma State on Sunday from winning at least a share of the Big XII title and securing the top seed in the conference tourney in Kansas City.

The Longhorns early effort and intensity matched the lackluster crowd in attendance for the next to the last home game of the season. (The turnstile was 10,479, but it felt like about 6-8k at most.)  It was a 6:30 tip and the Texas caucus is tonight, but the crowd was still pathetic.

Nebraska led 12-5 after seven minutes before the Longhorns gained focus for the first time. Texas finished the first half on 33-13 run and looked to have the game well in hand at 38-25 at half. DJ Augustin and Damion James were the first half stars with 14 points a piece.

However, the Longhorns did not coast through the second half. Nebraska quickly cut the Texas lead to just 47-44 after nailing four straight three-pointers and adding three layups as well. Texas was having tremendous difficulty with Aleks Maric. When Texas elected to play behind Maric and double him on the catch, he smartly and accurately found the open perimeter shooters. When Texas decided to front Maric, Nebraska spread the floor and passed the ball over the top of the Texas defense to Maric for the easy finish. The Longhorn defense was picked apart, especially in the second half, and it almost cost them the game.

Nebraska tied the game at 50, 52, and finally at 61 with just 1:39 left. Then, Damion James came up with a huge rebound after a missed jumper by Augustin. The extra possession eventually led to a three-pointer by AJ Abrams, his only one of the game, and a 64-61 lead that the Longhorns would never relinquish. Nebraska scored a couple of buckets in the final minute but a four-for-four free throw effort by Abrams and two more free throws from Justin Mason allowed the Longhorns to clinch the crucial home victory.

The outcome was: Too Close for Comfort. Honestly, I never thought that Texas was in danger of losing this game until I looked at the scoreboard and saw a tie game with under a minute to play. The Longhorn defense was not impressive. However, DJ was putting on a fantastic performance, Damion James appeared that he could have scored at will, and Nebraska just didn’t look like a team that should have been able to stay with the ‘Horns. But with a minute to play, it was anyone’s game. Impressively, James and Connor Atchley hustled to chase down missed Augustin shots, Abrams found his stroke from long-range and from the line, and Mason made the defensive play of the game by stealing back an ill-advised home run pass from Atchley in the final 15 seconds. At this point in the season wins don’t have to be pretty. From here on out, it is basically survive and move on, and that is exactly what Texas did tonight.

Stat of the Game: Points in the paint: Nebraska about 20+. I don’t have the exact total but Texas was soundly defeated in this department. We have seen the ‘Horns evolve from a perimeter oriented and guard led team to a team that ran the table in February with a balanced approach to scoring. However, in the last two outings, Texas has gotten almost zero scoring from their post play. This is not a good sign looking forward. Tonight, DJ and Damion were hitting their jumpers and Texas escaped. In Lubbock, the entire team was ice cold from the perimeter and, other than a late rally, was pretty easily handled by an average basketball team. Texas will not be able to win in March without the ability to score in the paint.

The Offensive MVP was: DJ Augustin. Overall, this is an easy call. DJ dominated the game and looked very much like the best point guard in the country. Augustin scored a game high 22 points on 9-of-16 from the floor (4-of-7 from three) and added five assists against two turnovers. Nebraska packed the lane and did a nice job limiting his penetration opportunities, but it didn’t matter. DJ was outstanding from long-range and with his fade-away mid-range jumper. All that being said, it was AJ who iced the game. Abrams scored seven of his 15 total points in the final minute. Either way, it was a nice effort by the starting Texas backcourt tonight.

The Defensive MVP was: No one. Connor had five blocks but was beaten repeatedly by Maric over the top. Damion James added three steals and two blocks, however, none stick out in my mind. Justin Mason probably deserves the nod but he wasn’t credited with a single block or steal.  And Texas allowed Nebraska to shoot 45% from the floor and 47% from three. With numbers like that, it is hard to award anyone a defensive award.

The Freshman Evaluation tonight was: Poor. Gary Johnson played maybe his worst game as a Longhorn. Johnson played 19 minutes, scored four points, and grabbed three rebounds. He also appeared to be totally out of sync for the entire game. He committed three turnovers, all of which led to Nebraska points, and had difficulty defending Maric.

In his three first half minutes, Clint Chapman did a nice job of defending Maric but Barnes did not go back to him in the second half with the game tightening. Coach Barnes, in his post-game comments, said that he regretted not playing Chap more. Alexis Wangmene played just four minutes and failed to register anything in the stat book.

Three Things: (1) Justin Mason played well. Justin’s line: seven points, seven rebounds, and four assists to just one turnover in 36 minutes of action. He made both his field goals, including one three-pointer, and sank both his free throws with the game on the line. Mason is never going to lead the team in points or highlights but this team cannot be elite without his effort on both ends.

(2) A better effort will be needed going forward. PB pointed to a couple of keys in his preview: run the offense through the post, defend the paint, and stay out of foul trouble. The Longhorns certainly failed in the first two objectives. Add in 10 turnovers and Texas nearly lost. While Oklahoma State is not a great team, they are hot, have more talent than Nebraska, and could be playing for a shocking 9-7 conference record when they visit on Sunday. Texas will need to step it up, especially on defense, to finish the conference season with an unblemished home record.

(3) One more win = Big XII title. It is easy to look at a four point home win over an average team and be disappointed. At this point, margin of victory no longer matters, though. Wins are wins, regardless of size. Nothing is going to come easily to the Longhorns or to any other team in March. If Texas can take care of business on Sunday afternoon, the Big XII title will return to Austin. All our goals are still attainable.

Box Score

NEXT GAME: Home vs. Oklahoma State – Sunday 3/9 3:00 p.m. CBS