The young Texas Longhorns (9-2) notched a season building win, with a 78-76 thriller in Greensboro over North Carolina. This afternoon's victory plus the neutral site win over Illinois in New York City gives Rick Barnes and the ‘Horns two big notches in their belt and it's not even January. A Wednesday tilt in East Lansing with Michigan State will be yet another opportunity to strengthen the resume.
But before we look toward the Spartans, let's first review this one. The game may not have been in Chapel Hill but the stadium was obviously going to be filled with Carolina blue just as Texas Stadium was packed with burnt orange last December. It was critical that Texas get off to a quick start and gain confidence in their "road" affair, after faltering so severely in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago. The Longhorns did jump out to a good start leading at each of the first two television breaks by small margins. Texas then extended that lead to double digits at 26-16, mostly off offensive rebounds and second chance points.
The Tar Heels battled back over the last eight minutes of the half as outstanding freshman, Harrison Barnes, started to carry the Tar Heels on offense. On the other end of the court, Texas stopped getting offensive rebounds, played through a cold stretch from the floor, and also started to cough up the ball. Those Texas turnovers led to some easy Carolina buckets, and the lead was cut in half by the under four tv timeout.
Questionable and persistent whistles didn't help the Longhorns either. Tristan Thompson was saddled with two fouls in the opening three minutes of the half; Dogus Balbay and Matt Hill each had three by halftime; and J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton had two each as well.
Thankfully for the Longhorns, Alexis Wangmene found his game in Greensboro. Wingman was unbelievably effective in the first half with eight rebounds, including five offense, and some solid defense on seven-footer Tyler Zeller.
The Texas lead was gone, and halftime couldn't come soon enough. Carolina led 33-32 at the break.
After Thompson picked up two fouls in the first three minutes of the second half, the Horns were not looking good. Harrison Barnes continued to be a match-up problem for Texas; Zeller and Henson continued to dominate the offensive glass; and Texas was reverting to the one-on-one offense that too often plagues Rick Barnes coached teams.
However, perhaps leaning on their learnings from the losses to Pitt and USC, Texas was not done. Hamilton showed a national tv audience how much he has improved since his selfish freshman campaign. Jordan was deadly from behind the arc and also off the bounce with a couple of nifty, body-contorting finishes near the rim.
Not to be outdone, Cory Joseph made the high screen and roll his personal offensive machine. Joseph had no trouble turning the corner when Carolina bigs failed to hedge properly and then finish or dish as the defense collapsed to help on his dribble penetration.
The third member of the Texas perimeter attack was J'Covan Brown, who thankfully shook off a bone-headed offensive foul call in the first half, to play smart and under control basketball in the second. J'Covan didn't knock down any three-pointers but contributed a critical bucket and sank two free throws down the stretch.
With Carolina up 73-70, the rest of the game became the Cory Joseph show. At the 1:27 mark, Joseph drew a foul on Larry Drew and then calmly sank both free throws to cut the lead to one. At the other end of the court, Cory snagged a defensive board, one of his four on the game. A high ball screen gave Joseph the ability to turn the corner and get into the lane. As a Carolina defender rotated over to help, Cory found Thompson for a two-handed slam and a 74-70 Texas lead. After a missed hook shot by Zeller and a rebound by Hamilton, J'Covan sank two free throws of his own to put the ‘Horns ahead 76-73. Unfortunately for Longhorn fans, the lead was short lived. A three-pointer by Barnes tied the game at 76 with just 11 seconds left.
This brings us to Cory's moment. In the Pittsburgh just weeks ago, Joseph sped the length of the floor and ended up taking an off-balance runner from the baseline that drew nothing but air. He had more time in that game than he realized and ended up getting a terrible look at the basket.
This afternoon was a different story, though. Joseph attacked off the dribble but was under control. He had plenty of time to get a good shot and it showed. Joseph drove his man just inside the three-point arc, stopped on a dime, and pump faked his man. With Dexter Strickland in the air, Cory spun the opposite way, stayed on balance, and canned a 17 foot jumper. Poise. Confidence. Execution. Freshman.
Had the jumper not gone in, it would have been easy to point out that it was still a tough shot. But the difference between what happened in the final moments of the Pitt game compared to what happened in the final moments of this one, should give all Longhorn fans a tremendous amount of hope. This team is still thin, still young, and, sure, it's still early, but this team is starting to get it and that's exciting.
A few other notes as I've rambled way too long on the summary already:
- This is the Cory Joseph that makes Texas a contender in the Big 12. In his first five games as a Longhorn, Joseph struggled. His point totals were 5, 8, 10, 2, and 9. He jumper looked off and teams were starting to pack the paint to defend Thompson and Johnson without repercussion. I wrote earlier this season that Texas needed to have either J'Covan or Cory emerge as a legitimate third scorer, otherwise, the Texas offense was going to become too easy to defend-double Thompson, don't leave Jordan, and Texas can't score. Over the last six games, Joseph has complicated that game plan considerably. He is hitting the long ball, attacking off the bounce, and is clearly an offensive weapon. In his last six games, his point totals are 14, 16, 9, 19, 18, and 21.
- Alexis Wangmene played his best game as a Longhorn today. Period. With Thompson forced to sit for most the first half, it was Wingman who entered and provided the spark. Alexis had eight rebounds in the first half alone and finished with nine rebounds in just 15 minutes of action overall. Even beyond what he did on the glass, his bodied up on Zeller as well as any Longhorn and frustrated him some with his physical defense. Zeller is a heck of a scorer and no college player is going to completely shut him down, but with Thompson out, Wingman did more than his fair share.
- Jordan Hamilton made some money today. Barring an injury, this is Jordan's last season as a Longhorn, making every game an audition for the NBA. Hamilton did struggle chasing Barnes around screen after screen and still loses his man by ball watching some on D, but his defense is much improved from last year and his offense is off the charts. His shot selection is improved, his vision is improved, his attitude is improved, his body control is improved, his rebounding is improved, and on and on. Today's line: 24 points on 10-of-18 (4-of-7 from deep), 10 boards, two assists, and two turnovers in 34 minutes. Rick will take that every time.
- Tristan Thompson has to stay out of foul trouble. Today Matt Hill and Wangmene stepped up to fill the void as best they could. However, their best doesn't even compare to TT's best. I honestly don't remember his first two fouls but three and four were just stupid-over the back and getting caught helping on a high ball screen. Just as we've seen Cory adjust to the college game, so too will Tristan. Texas doesn't compete in the Big 12 and beyond without Thompson on the floor.
- Was it just me or did Verne Lundquist and Clark Kellogg seem ridiculously surprised that Texas won? I felt like they knew they were calling a good game but were both shocked that Texas pulled it out.
- Moving forward, I'd like to see a 2-3 zone employed more often. We went to the zone for a single possession in the first half and some in the second. With foul trouble and against opponents with big frontlines, it would be nice to have. I'd like to see more minutes for J'Covan and fewer for Jai Lucas. If you didn't notice, Lucas didn't play at all in the second half after he was victimized repeatedly off the dribble in the first half by the bigger Carolina guards. Just as Larry Drew is not Carolina good, Lucas is not Texas good. I have nothing against Jai, just pointing out that Texas is better served with J'Covan on the floor and Joseph sliding over the point when Dogus Balbay sits.
- Texas basketball is to North Carolina basketball as Texas football is to Nebraska football. Fourth straight win over the Tar Heels.
Box ScoreNext Game: at Michigan State - Wednesday, December 22nd 6 pm ESPN2