Note 1: For those perhaps disinclined to read a recap beyond the jump, the piece concludes with some thoughts and a question on where this game ranks on the all-time great hoops games during the Rick Barnes era.
Note 2: The actual "what happened" recap is normally the most insignificant section of our game reviews, but considering tonight's instant classic, the recap is provided below in full detail and, for the first time, separate from post-game analysis (which will follow in a separate post tomorrow).
TEXAS 73 OKLAHOMA 68
In the days leading up to Saturday night's game against Oklahoma, I and most Longhorns fans with whom I spoke were too nervous to assert any confidence that Texas would get the result it so badly needed. For the most part, there was an expectation that the contest would be close and, hopefully, entertaining. "Should be a fun one" was as close as most of us got to making any sort of prediction, and even that was a euphemism for "I'll be holding my breath until it's over."
The game's drama was in part a product of circumstance. The ESPN broadcasters pointed out no fewer than forty times that the #2-ranked Sooners would elevate to the nation's top spot with a win, followed by an equal number of reminders that a Texas loss would pin them down at 6-6 in Big 12 play with road games at Oklahoma State and Kansas still to play. Though the pragmatic fan will try where possible not to label as "must-win" a game against such a highly ranked, 25-1 opponent, Texas basketball fans knew that's precisely what Saturday night's game should be considered. Texas desperately needed to win.
Thus, while any Longhorn victory would have handily qualified as fun, the game as it actually unfolded... immediately assumes special import as one of the most memorable games in UT basketball history. Though Texas' first-half performance was largely successful, the standout stories centered on Sooner star Blake Griffin, who went to the bench early with two fouls and then, just before halftime, back to the bench -- not to return -- with what team trainers would determine to be a concussion.
Without Griffin for much of the first half, the Sooners trailed by five at intermission. As second half play resumed, Griffin was confirmed out for the remainder of the game, Texas promptly scored the half's first 7 points, and the typically tepid Erwin Center crowd, smelling blood, roared as it only does once or twice per season. With Dick Vitale caroling for the inevitable Jeff Capel timeout, Blake Griffin done for the night, and the Texas lead stretched to 12, there seemed at least as good a chance Texas would run away and hide as Oklahoma would be able to overcome that deficit on the road. High fives abound, and even one "Game over" comment in the game-thread gallery (immediately rebuked).
On most nights against most teams, that probably would have been game, set, and match. Assuming, of course, that the other team didn't have Willie Warren. Unfortunately, that's exactly who Oklahoma turned to absent Blake Griffin, and the supremely talented freshman guard put on as good a show as we've seen at the Erwin Center since... uh... three weeks ago when Denis Clemente dropped 44? Okay, scratch that temporal comparison. Texas fans watched in horror as Warren single-handedly hyper-launched the Sooners on a magnificent run of basketball. He hit open threes, he hit contested threes, and he hit threes that shouldn't have gone in but banked home anyway. If he didn't have a look outside, he deployed his unfair quickness dribbling the ball like he was in an And-1 Mixtape scrimmage, breaking down Texas' defense and scoring himself or, with several gorgeous passes, finding open teammates for easy buckets. When his deepest three point shot of the night -- well beyond NBA range -- banked in to tie the game at 56 with 6:47 remaining, Warren had single-handedly completed the comeback by scoring 9 straight points on consecutive three pointers.
So ridiculous was Willie Warren in those first 14 minutes of the second half that, had one only been told what he did without having seen the game, one might failrly wonder if the person recapping it was exaggerating, if not outright fictionalizing. Not only did he do it all, but less than two minutes later Warren's storyline entered the realm of a Friday Night Lights script: After Warren suffered a sudden and severe leg cramp which caused him to turn over the ball to Texas, he was due to the injury unable to run down the court to help stop the Texas fast break. But Justin Mason missed a layup, the Sooners recovered the rebound, and Austin Johnson shot the ball ahead to Warren, who hadn't moved since the injury. Barely standing, Warren caught the pass, managed to raise up for a three point jumper, and buried the shot before falling back down to the ground in pain. After trailing by a dozen points earlier in the half, Warren's three with just 5:14 left in the game gave Oklahoma a 61-56 lead.
Had the Sooners held on to win, Warren's performance would have been a top candidate to lead the SportsCenter broadcast following the game, and deservedly so. When Warren on one leg hit the last of his three pointers, Texas had been stuck on 56 points for nearly three minutes, its last score coming on an AJ Abrams three (just his second field goal of the night) that gave Texas a 56-50 lead. Oklahoma's 11-0 run placing the Longhorns' entire season on the brink, Abrams ended the drought with a jumper near the free throw line, pulling Texas within three. Following a Taylor Griffin miss on the other end, Abrams wasted no time firing off a three pointer, which he again buried, tying the game on his eighth straight point scored for the 'Horns.
The tie wouldn't last long, as the Sooners answered Abrams' three with a bucket and foul on the other end, putting the 'Horns right back in a three point hole. Though Balbay brought the ball up past midcourt, a determined Abrams immediately swung by to retrieve it and darted around an Atchley screen to find enough room to squeeze off one more jumper. Good again. 10 straight points for Abrams, and Texas was down only 1.
What happened next few Longhorns basketball fans will forget anytime soon. Following an Oklahoma turnover, Abrams once again assumed command of the ball at midcourt, this time dribbling through most of the remaining shot clock before attempting yet another three, this one deeper and more difficult than any of the rest. Swish again. AJ Abrams' 13th straight point but Texas up by 2, a lead the Sooners would half making one of two free throws on their ensuing possession. The ball in his hands at midcourt one more time, I was this time surprised when, with Connor Atchley running the same ball screen at the top of the key that he had been the prpevious four possessions, the Oklahoma defender went underneath Atchley, a fatal mistake that gave Abrams alll the room he needed to fire off one more three point attempt. On the mark again. With just 1:13 remaining Texas held a 69-65 thanks to 16 straight points from AJ Abrams.
Had Texas held on to win without any more dramatic plays, it still would have been remembered as an all-time great. As it was, however, there was more action in store, as though whichever basketball god was watching over this particular contest was doggedly determined to run the drama through every last available second. To that end, Oklahoma answered Abrams' three with three of their own -- a made free throw, missed free throw, offensive rebound, and putback. Texas' four-point lead had been trimmed again to one. Taking the ball back with 42 seconds, Texas again put the ball in Abrams' hands. After dribbling the clock down under 20 seconds, Abrams launched another three point shot, but he was both deep beyond the line and awkardly off-balance. The shot missed badly.
But before Texas fans could even groan, the miss caroming towards a pile of players, the giant paw of Dexter Pittman swept high above the crowd, grabbing the offensive rebound. The giant center looked left towards the paint, saw traffic, and then dropped stepped to the baseline, spinning himself towards the basket in one oh-so-sexy motion, Taylor Griffin caught on Dexter's hip as the big fella laid the ball in to put Texas up 71-68. The crowd erupted and then, when Oklahoma's final attempt to tie the game with a three fell short and into the hands of Texas, began to celebrate with any emotional energy they had left.
PLACING THE GAME IN RICK BARNES ERA HOOPS HISTORY
Saturday night's game demands immediate barstool exploration into its place in Texas hoops history. The standard of review is up for debate (and personal taste, really), but at least for me, I think this game can be fairly said to have been the best home game in the Rick Barnes era, surpassing TJ Ford's freshman win over Kansas, or any of the more recent games neatly highlighted in Cody's excellent piece from December 2008. There's room to disagree, but when I take into account all the factors, I'm just not sure I've seen anything quite as wild as what we saw Saturday night. Willie Warren's explosion was outrageous. And it was subsequently topped in the same half by AJ's eruption, one after another, to rescue Texas from disaster. Add in OU's #2 ranking and Texas' desperation-level in terms of needing a win and this one moves to the top of my list.
I'm not sure we've ever systematically undertaken a list of the top road games in the Rick Barnes era, but the four that immediately jump to mind, in order, are:
- Sweet 16 win over West Virginia on Kenton Paulino's buzzer beater
- Texas' 66-63 2004 Big 12 tourney win over Oklahoma, after trailing by 12 late in the game
- 2004 at Texas Tech, when Mouton hit a three pointer to send it to overtime at the buzzer on as beautiful an endgame play as you could hope to draw up
- 2004 at Providence, courtesy o f PJ Tucker's game-winning layup at the buzzer
I'm too tired to research any I'm forgetting tonight, so jump in the comments if you remember some other classics from the Barnes era. And, of course, your thoughts on where tonight's game ranks in terms of home wins.