Game Recap: It wasn’t pretty, but it doesn’t have to be. The #11/12 Texas Longhorns (15-4, 4-1) snagged a huge road win in Waco as they outlasted Baylor, 78-72. The ‘Horns remain just a single loss behind conference leaders Oklahoma and Kansas in the loss column and retain legitimate hopes of another Big XII crown.
The first half was about as ugly a half of basketball as I’ve seen in a long time. The cold shooting ‘Horns rubbed off on the normally hot-shooting Bears as the teams combined to shoot about 30% from the floor and produced just 51 points collectively. Texas led 27-24 at the break despite getting almost nothing from Damion James or Gary Johnson in the first twenty minutes. James was ice cold from the floor and consistently settled for contested jump shots instead of attacking the paint with the bounce. Meanwhile, Johnson picked up two fouls in the opening minutes of the game and watched his teammates struggle on offense for the remainder of the half from the bench.
Thankfully, Baylor wasn’t any better. The Bears were just 3-of-10 from behind the arc and a little worse overall from the floor. Tweety Carter was relegated to the bench for Scott Drew’s club after he was whistled for three first half fouls. I’d like to give the Texas defense some credit for the Baylor bricks and they do deserve some, but it was mostly just cold shooting for the Bear guards.
The second half was a different story as both teams were more efficient from the floor and earned some easy points at the line too. With Johnson back in the game, James showing more desire to get into the paint, and Pittman with a couple of minutes of pure offense, the Texas Longhorns began to control the game. Texas attacked the paint off the dribble and was able to turn solid defense into easy run out dunks and lay ups. AJ Abrams also got hot with back to back mid-range jumpers which were followed by a similar make by Johnson. Baylor wouldn’t go quietly, though. Carter hit back to back three pointers of his own to put the Bears back ahead 49-47.
After back and forth action led to a 62 all tie, steals and fast break lay ups by Justin Mason and Dogus Balbay put the ‘Horns ahead 68-62, a lead they would not relinquish. A clutch Abrams jumper, and free throws by Connor Atchley, and Balbay provided the remaining points.
The outcome was: Elating. Honestly, this was not a game I expected to win before the season started, and after non-conference play, it still wasn’t a game I expected the win. I thought the Bears would have too much offense for Texas. The Longhorns have been able to stay in or win every game with their defense. However, in Waco, I thought the rims would be loose, the shots would fall, and the Bears would break the Rick Barnes’ spell. I am so pleased to have been wrong. Solid defense and some untimely shooting from Baylor certainly helped, but let’s also give credit to the sensible shooting of Abrams, the second half aggressiveness of Johnson, and the clutch free throw shooting of Ward and Atchley in the final minutes. Losing this game would not have been a huge deal but winning it makes a lot more things possible. Texas remains just a game out of first place and still gets to host the Sooners in Austin in a couple of weeks.
Stat of the Game: Free Throws 19-of-27 70%.For the first time all season, the free throw stripe was a friend of the ‘Horns in a close game. Varez Ward 6-of-6, Connor Atchley 4-of-4, and Matt Hill 2-of-2 were all perfect. Abrams and James were a respectable 2-of-3 and even horrible free throw shooter, Dogus Balbay, sank 1-of-2 in the final minute. The final margin was six points but all of the final possessions change if Texas clanks a couple of free throws down the stretch. This obviously won’t be our last close game the season, and hopefully, the Longhorns can reflect back on this positive experience when they find themselves in the similar situation in the future. Oh yeah, and all 27 attempts came in the second half—not settling for perimeter jumpers does make a difference, huh?
The Offensive MVP was: Dogus Balbay. With a nod to Abrams’s game-high 19 points, it was Balbay who put the Texas offense back on track in the second half. On offense, he exuded confidence like we haven’t seen from him all season. He found Abrams for easy looks, pushed the ball when appropriate, and even turned his own solid on-the-ball-defense into easy offense. Justin Mason is always going to bring toughness, defense, and rebounding to the floor, and he is still going to be a starter; however, the development of Balbay and the ability for Barnes to have another reliable ball handler off the bench has already proven invaluable and is likely the key to this team’s success in March. Abrams and Mason are good, Abrams, Mason, and Balbay are better.
The Defensive MVP was: The rims. As mentioned above in the game recap, Texas did some nice thing on defense, especially in the first half. However, most of the Baylor misses were just misses.
Bench: Clint Chapman and Matt Hill made only brief appearances and both gave Barnes some decent minutes. Hill had four points and a couple of rebounds in his seven minutes. Chap added a steal and three rebounds of his own but missed both his free throw attempts. Credit both Chap and Hill with helping Texas survive the first half with Johnson out in foul trouble.
Dexter Pittman gave Barnes an offensive spark in his seven minutes. He scored six points, which could have been ten if he hadn’t missed some easy ones, and grabbed a couple of rebounds. Some of you are calling for Dex to regain his starting role. I don’t see that happening any time soon. For as dominant as he can be in the post, he is still too slow laterally on defense and too foul prone as well. And without the ball in his hands on offense, he is a negative for the other players as he clogs the lane and isn’t an option in pick and roll situations. Last, he limits the ability of the Longhorns to press the ball full court. For now, Dexter remains an instant offensive drug that is most effective in small quantities.
Dogus Balbay played 17 minutes and ran the team well. Balbay had four assists and no turnovers while playing fantastic on-the-ball defense. He is quickly settling into a reliable second option at point guard. The shot is still not there but his defense, his rebounding, and his much improved decision making will continue to earn him minutes.
Two Things: (1) Winning on the road is a BIG deal. There is no bigger home court advantage than that found in college basketball. The single biggest reason that Baylor was favored against the Longhorns was where the game was played. It takes a significant mismatch in two teams to find road favorites in college basketball. Playing on your court and in front of your fans is worth a ton. Just look at the scores each night. (I’m finishing this post on Wednesday night). Just tonight, #1Duke lost at #4 Wake Forest, #3 Pittsburgh lost at #21 Villanova, #15 Syracuse lost at Providence, and #23 Georgetown lost at Cincinnati. The list is the same most nights in college basketball. Don’t fool yourself into thinking a win over Baylor in Waco is not a big deal. This isn’t the same low-level SWC team we all remember. Baylor is a tier-one Big XII contender that went to the tournament last year and will be dancing again this March. They have a top five offense (according to Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency statistics) which the ‘Horns held in check for an entire half. Even with a great second half output, Texas held the Bears to their third worst offensive performance of the season. Before the season, I thought there were three sure conference losses on the ‘Horns’ schedule: at Oklahoma, at Baylor, and at Kansas. Well, check one off that list. In that environment, against those supremely talented guards, and with an off night from multiple Longhorn stars, this win is ever more impressive. Well done, all.
(2) Winning ugly doesn’t matter in college basketball. Style points may matter in college football but they don’t in hoops. It’s win and move on. Sure, we shot the ball horribly for a half, turned it over ten times, gave up 17 offensive rebounds, and had multiple defensive lapses in the second. I acknowledge all of that. I’ll even state loudly that this was an extremely ugly game. It doesn’t matter, though. College basketball is about who you beat and where. Texas already has wins over tourney bound UCLA, Villanova, Wisconsin and now Baylor and is trending in the right direction. To take exception with an ugly road win against a top 30 team is just silly. It’s win and move on in this sport.
NEXT GAME: Home vs. Kansas State – Saturday 1/31 3:00 p.m. Big 12 Network (formerly ESPN+)