Whengrabbed an offensive rebound and scored the first bucket of the second half to extend K-State's lead to 42-27, I'm sure I wasn't the only Texas fan who was starting to compose this Texas team's season epitaph. The Wildcats were on a 23-6 run and the Longhorns had not scored a single field goal in nearly 10 minutes.
But Texas immediately responded by going on a 14-2 run to close within a single point, and then after Kansas State scored 5 unanswered to go up 49-43, went on a 25-7 burst that opened up a double-digit lead of its own, lifting the Longhorns to a 75-64 win that improved their record to 16-9 overall, 6-6 in Big 12 play. Particularly considering the rut the team found itself in at halftime, the Longhorns comeback win was as big and impressive a win as could be, helping Texas continue to build momentum down the back stretch of the season as it battles for an NCAA Tournament bid.
J'Covan Brown (23 points) and Sheldon McClellan (10 second half points) provided the offensive spark, but without question the game's MVP was senior Alexis Wangmene, who delivered far and away the best game of his Longhorn career, scoring 15 points (9-12 from the line) and grabbing 13 enormous rebounds, along with a pair of blocks, a steal, two put-back dunks, and phenomenal halfcourt defense. Just an incredible overall performance, and following Lexi's strong game in College Station as well, we're finally seeing the kind of effectiveness I was fantasizing about in the pre-season.
Lexi's defensive performance was representative of the entire team's defense in the second half, and indeed the game was won on that end of the floor, where Texas' outstanding team/help defense was the best we've seen all season, leading to K-State shooting just 10 of 31 from the floor across the final twenty minutes. Maybe most impressive of all was the work Texas' guards did on Wildcat star Rodney McGruder, who after scoring 11 points on 4-7 shooting in the first half failed to score a single point in the second half, attempting just a pair of shots.
I spent most of the game preview talking about K-State's style of play, contending that if Texas would understand the fight that the Wildcats like to pick and embrace engaging them in that kind of battle, then the Longhorns could and would win. It took a while, but to this young team's enormous credit they kept battling, didn't quit when they were struggling, and eventually broke through, putting the game away as the free throws began to pile up. (Speaking of which: it's amusing to hear Kansas State fans complain about the officiating; year-in and year-out the Wildcats are the most hacktastic team in college basketball, and while it often serves them well in many regards, they're in no position to cry when the officials whistle all the hacking and it backfires.)
That was the big key to this game that I emphasized coming in, and I was encouraged during the pre-game when Rick Barnes spent his interview with Craig Way talking about the need to attack K-State and use their aggression against them. That's exactly what we did, and by the end Texas had destroyed the Wildcats in the free throw department, making 35 of 48 attempts, to Kansas State's 8 of 12. While K-State's mugging often plays well at Bramlage, it was nice to see Texas make them pay for it by relentlessly attacking the Wildcats, playing tough, physical basketball, and beating Frank Martin and K-State at their own game.
We also did a terrific job on the glass down the stretch, allowing Kansas State just 3 offensive rebounds off their final 19 missed shots, and for the game outperformed the Wildcats on the offensive glass, with the Longhorns snagging 13 boards off their 23 misses, while allowing K-State to just 12 offensive boards across their 32 missed field goals.
Tough defense, strong rebounding, physical toughness, relentless attacking, gobs of free throws. That's a winning combination in the Big 12 six days a week and twice on Sundays, and one of the big worries for this team heading into this season was that this young, relatively undersized team wasn't well-constituted to capitalize on that recipe for success. But here we are, this Longhorns team has shown incredible heart and toughness in battling back at every sign of adversity, they've rallied to win three in a row after four heartbreaking losses, and now sit at 6-6 in conference play, with the opportunity to all but seal an NCAA Tournament bid across a two-game road trip to the Oklahomas.
Most importantly of all, this team has steadily improved as the season has progressed. For all the whining and hand-wringing by some Texas fans following the poor finishes to the last couple of seasons, you'd think Rick Barnes was in over his head and that he didn't know how to develop a team and bring players along. That's all nonsense of course, as has been abundantly clear from a fair evaluation of Barnes' full body of work, but perhaps never has it been more evident than with the growth and improvement that we've seen from this squad. Heading into this season a lot of us who obsess over Texas basketball thought this team was an underdog to make the NCAA Tournament, and had no chance of being competitive against elite teams. But as this young group has gotten better and better, they've battled the best down to the wire and taken care of business against the teams they've had to, and just like that Rick Barnes is now knocking on the door of his 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
This week won't be any easier, and Texas could very easily lose either or both games on the road, and again find itself behind the NCAA Tournament eight ball, but for now they live another day, accomplishing what Kevin Durant, DJ Augustin,, Jordan Hamilton, and every other Longhorn since 2006 could not: they sent Kansas State packing from Austin with a loss.
Light the tower orange.