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Horns Stumble at Home Against Kansas State

Nearly two years ago, I watched from the Erwin Center as Kansas State shot 14-27 from 3-point land and Cartier Martin drilled a late 3-pointer to spark an upset victory over Texas.   Yesterday, sitting on my couch with a nasty stomach virus, I watched as Kansas State shot 66% behind the arc and Denis Clemente--in a performance that many Longhorns fans will never forget--single-handedly led the Wildcats to a similar upset.  Continuing a disturbing trend across several sports, Kansas State snapped the Longhorns 19-game home winning streak in a 86-82 OT thriller.  The game was one of the most crushing regular season losses in recent memory for the 'Horns, as they blew an extremely winnable conference game at home against a mediocre opponent, fumbling away several of the opportunities put in play by the unexpected victory over Baylor in Waco last Tuesday night.

Game Recap: Continuing the trend of starting slow at home, Texas played their worst half of the season and found themselves facing a 32-22 deficit at halftime.  Buoyed by an early 6-2 rebounding edge, Kansas State jumped out to a quick 7-1 lead.  Unable to get anything going on offense facing a pressure man-to-man defense, Texas scored exactly one point in the first 5:30 of the game.  Caught off-guard by the pressure defense--especially around the perimeter, Texas routinely turned the ball over via a variety of methods.  Bad passes, bad decisions, and even carelessness were exploited by the attacking KSU defenders, who came up with 9 steals and 13 turnovers in the first half.  However, after knocking down a few jumpers and assisted by the offensive injection of Pittman (6 points, 5 boards), Texas still found themselves up 17-14 with under 8 minutes left in the half.  It didnt last.  Assisted by Texas refusing to score/rebound/hold onto the ball, KSU went on a 16-0 tear over a six-minute span to go up 30-17.  Despite KSU's run, both teams were plagued by cold shooting in the first half, as KSU started 3-17 from the field in shooting 33% and Texas--when they actually held onto the ball--only shot 32% from the field.  Denis Clemente only had 8 points at halftime, which makes his second half explosion all the more surprising.

While the box score might insinuate that Texas outplayed KSU during the second half, this doesn't tell the whole story.  The second half narrative revolved around Denis Clemente's incredible scoring burst building a massive lead and the Longhorns full-court press and trapping defense jump-starting a furious comeback over the last 7 minutes.  Guarded by Justin Mason or Dogus Balbay, Clemente scored 17 straight points for KSU in the first 6:30 of the half.  Read that again. In what I expect will lead to an "Anatomy of a Disaster" post by BigRoy, the Texas defense made a variety of errors in allowing Clemente to hit 4 straight three-pointers.  Balbay's errors were particularly egregious, as he literally ran into an off-ball screen and attempted to help out down low in allowing Clemente two wide-open jumpers.  In a somewhat surprising move, Frank Martin pulled Clemente out of the game for three minutes before putting him back in at the 10:30 mark.  When Clemente returned, Texas was down 53-37 and Rick Barnes decided to shake things up. 

In a move that probably made PB very happy, Rick Barnes went to a half-court trap at the ten-minute mark, then implemented a full-court press shortly thereafter.  Putting  together a Ward-Mason-Abrams-Damo-Johnson line-up at the 9-minute mark, Texas didn't make another substitution until inside of 3 minutes left in the game.  In fact, outside of a brief 90-second appearance by Balbay, the Horns didnt make any substitutions after switching to the full-court press. The move didnt pay immediate dividends, as Texas was still down 17 points with 7 minutes to go.  However, as KSU attempted to slow down the game and spread the floor, the pressing and trapping by the Horns caused several turnovers, and Texas went on a 14-2 run over a 2:30 span.  The 'Horns looked fantastic with this super-athletic line-up and kept KSU off-balance by relentlessly attacking the basket, playing aggressive defense, and freeing AJ for open jumpers.  In the second half, Texas scored 34 points either in transition or in the paint, which dwarfed their previous total of 6 such points in the first half.  In a wildly entertaining game down the stretch, Texas didn't actually catch KSU until Mason scored on a lay-up with 9 seconds to go. 

In a controversial OT period, Texas caught some bad breaks.  After AJ fouled out, KSU switched into a 1-2-2 zone and packed the lane due to the lack of any outside threat on the floor for Texas.  To their credit--or out of necessity--Texas still kept attacking the basket.  Marred by missed free throws by both teams, the OT period came down to 3 specific plays in the last 15 seconds.  First, with the shot clock running down and the game tied at 79, Donald Brown rose up in front of Damion James and drilled one of the long "OMG you have to be KIDDING ME" three-balls that have plagued Texas in recent losses.  Second, after Gary Johnson was fouled under the basket and made 1 of 2 FT's to make it 82-80, Texas secured a foul on Ron Anderson, a 46% FT shooter on the season.  Anderson missed both FT's, but Texas watched the game slip away as Connor Atchley got tangled up with Fred Brown (and was probably fouled in the process) and couldn't secure the rebound.  Finally, in trying to purposely miss a FT down 83-81 with 6 seconds left, Dogus Balbay missed the rim entirely, causing the TV announcers to wonder if he even knew the rule.  And that was all she wrote...

The outcome was: devastatingAfter the surprising victory in Waco, the ceiling for this conference season was removed and it became easy to fantasize about a potential run at a conference championship.  Instead of serving as a springboard, the effects of the Baylor victory have already been marginalized, as Texas failed to defend their home court against a mediocre opponent.  Texas was out-everythinged for the first 33 minutes of the game, and, despite the furious rally at the end, I doubt Texas fans will take much solace in any moral victories coming out of this game. Now finding themselves two back of Kansas and Oklahoma, Texas must quickly regroup heading into their Wednesday night tilt against Missouri.  If they dont, we're going to have to officially stop worrying about any ceilings and instead start being concerned over the floor for this season.

It's easy to feel good about winning ugly, as long as you win, but this loss raised a lot of questions about the 'Horns, who still haven't nestled into an identity heading into the meat of the conference season.  Given a chance to build off their 4-1 start to conference play, Texas spit the bit and once again failed to put together consistent success over a 40-minute period.

Stat of the Game: Anything related to Denis Clemente:  In an absolutely  ridiculous shooting performance, Clemente scored 44 points in 38 minutes on 13-25 shooting and nailed all 6 of his three-pointers and all 12 of his free throws.  Abusing the 'Horns off the dribble, in transition, and off of screens, Clemente scooted around the court in an apparently higher gear.  This will not be a fun film session for the 'Horns.

Some additional fun stats about Clemente's performance:

--Before today's game, Clemente had not scored over 20 points in a game this season.  His previous high of 20 points came against Gardner-Webb.

--In scoring 17 points in the first 6:30 of the second half, Clemente matched the scoring output of the entire UT offense over the first 18 minutes of the first half. 

The offensive MVP was: The defense and effective aggression down the stretch.  While Texas had a relatively balanced scoring load for the game--4 players were in double digits--the offensive explosion over the last seven minutes was fueled by the defensive shift causing turnovers and subsequent attacks to the basket.  After scoring only 46 points in the first 33 minutes, Texas scored 28 points in the final 7. 

Furthermore, during this spurt, Texas remained in control of the basketball.  After turning the ball over 13 times in the first half and 20 times in the first 33 minutes, Texas did not turn the ball over in the final 12 minutes of the game.  Effectively attacking the basket in both the half court and transition--yet remaining under control--Texas was able to put together their incredible rally. 

The defensive MVP was: Varez Ward.  I know it seems ridiculous to name a defensive MVP when an opposing player breaks a single-game scoring record, but Varez Ward showed incredible stones tonight when finally assigned to guard the white-hot Clemente.

Put on Clemente near the end of regulation, Varez Ward did an outstanding job shutting him down and staying in front of him.  In fact, in one instance, Clemente became so frustrated he grabbed Varez's shorts to try to pull him away from the ball.  Being able to stonewall a player who put up staggering point totals against Balbay and Mason--no slouches on defense themselves--was a true feather in the cap for the freshman.

Bench Play: Texas got double-digit minutes from Ward, Balbay, and Dexter Pittman.  Matt Hill and Clint Chapman played a grand total of four minutes and were non-factors during the game.  We've already discussed the contributions of Ward, who was part of the static line-up down the stretch and played 24 minutes.

Balbay: After playing over 30 minutes against Baylor, Dogus failed to build off that performance yesterday afternoon.  Playing 14 uneventful minutes, Balbay registered a single point and assist.  Just as bad, his defensive lapses against Clemente drew the wrath of Rick Barnes, and he also failed to lead the offense with the same authority and confidence as he did during Waco.

Pittman: Yesterday added another chapter to "The Curious Case of Dexter Pittman."  While he once again helped boost the offense in the first half, scoring 6 quick points and grabbing 5 boards, Dexter also fell victim to the turnover bug that plagued the entire team.  Once Texas fell behind by 17 points and switched to the press, Dexter was relegated to the bench.  Pretty much the line we've come to expect from Sexy Dex: 15 minutes, 8 points, 6 boards, 3 fouls, 3 turnovers.

How long will Atchley remain a starter?: In perhaps his second worst performance of the season (behind the Villanova game), Connor Atchley was terrible yesterday.  Outside of a highlight reel block that brought the crowd to their feet, Atchley gave a very empty 21 minutes yesterday.  With the team rallying with Ward taking over Atchley's spot in the line-up, I'm not sure how long Barnes will stick with Atchley as a starter.  It's one of the more interesting questions moving forward...

The TV announcers mentioned that Barnes thought Connor was about to put it all together, but last year's performances are becoming distant memories, if they aren't already.  Atchley's regression is just another aspect of an already bizarre season.

Final Thoughts: Perhaps moreso than any game this season, this game opens up a massive can-of-worms for the 'Horns.  Instead the game narrative revolving around AJ breaking the Big XII 3-point record in a convincing win, the narrative has instead been shifted about various concerns (mostly on offense) about this team moving forward. 

I expect plenty of further analysis over this game in the next few days, but, once again, the team must immediately regroup and play better against Missouri.  If Texas can take care of business over the next few weeks, this game can easily be seen as an anomaly based off a once-in-a-lifetime performance by an opponent.  By winning the Baylor game, Texas was essentially playing with House Money; unfortunately, they seemed to adopt that same attitude yesterday.  Time to suck it up and move forward.