As horribly frustrating as it felt to sit down to write after many of Texas' games this season, all those near-misses only make tonight's win feel that much more amazing. Facing what very well could have been a win-or-go-home game in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals against Iowa State, the Longhorns rallied from an 11-point second half deficit to pull out a gutty, enormously important, 71-65 win. In winning the grudge match versus the Cyclones, Texas picked up its 20th victory for the 13th consecutive season, and advances to the Big 12 semifinals to battle No. 2 seed Missouri on Friday night (9:00 pm CT, Big 12 Network / ESPNU).
Most importantly -- and the reason I was frantically screaming at the television throughout the game like a mother who's lost her child -- Thursday night's victory all but assures that for the 14th consecutive season, the University of Texas Longhorns basketball team will earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. As much help as Texas got elsewhere on the Bubble today, it's certainly possible that the team might have managed to backdoor into one of the last couple spots anyway, but the way that they did it tonight -- the way that this young team battled for and earned that victory, that Tourament berth... I just couldn't be happier, or more proud.
Texas 71 Iowa State 65
It certainly didn't come easy for Texas. Although the Cyclones stumbled out of the gate and Texas opened the game playing relatively well, as would prove to be the dominant theme of the first half the Longhorns simply could not convert their opportunities into points, and after fairly substantially outplaying Iowa St. across the first 6:30 minutes of the game, Texas had only a 6-2 lead to show for it. Epitomizing the entire frustrating sequence in a single two-second span, at one point Clint Chapman crossed over Royce White, whipped past him... and missed the point-blank, uncontested lay up at the rim.
As Iowa State took the ball down the floor with just over 13 minutes remaining, the Cyclones were just 1-7 from the field with more turnovers (3) than points (2), and though Texas had yet to turn it over and had racked up three offensive rebounds, the Longhorns held only a meager 6-2 advantage thanks to 10 bricks on their first 13 attempts. From there, and following Texas' season script to perfection, Iowa State promptly ripped off a 12-2 run and by halftime led 29-25 after the Longhorns shot a dreadful 10-38 from the floor, only to make things worse by scoring the first 7 points of the second half, extending their lead to 36-25.
But then a funny thing happened, as Texas -- tracking almost exactly the teams' first meeting in January, when the Horns closed a 39-26 deficit to tie the game at 44 -- rallied for a 13-4 run to tie the game at... 44. But whereas in Ames, Texas' comeback bid was disrupted when just after tying the game J'Covan Brown was lost to a turned ankle, tonight the Longhorns' star junior was there to play.
And that, as they say, made all the difference. With Brown on the floor, this time around Texas' rally just continued, and when their 22-4 blitzkrieg came to a close the Longhorns had turned an 11-point deficit into a 7-point advantage, leading 51-44 with 11:17 to play.
And then, another funny thing happened: Iowa State experienced what it's been like to be a Texas fan this season.
Just as they started to find themselves behind the eight ball, the Cyclones got red-hot, and valiantly rallied to tie the game at 59 with just over four minutes to play... then after stumbling and falling behind 65-59, rallied to tie the game again with 52 seconds left... only to get out-executed over the last couple of possessions and ultimately fall short of the win.
Yes, you read that right. It was Texas that scored a bucket-plus-one out of the timeout to go up 68-65, and yes, it was Texas that stole the ball away from Iowa State on their possession to try and tie, and yes, it was Texas that sunk two free throws to seal and deliver a tight win in a huge game. If that's not a fitting way for this team to finally close out that Tournament-clinching win that's been eluding them for weeks, I don't what is.
I really hadn't planned on recapping the game like that because I had so much else I wanted to say about the way we played and won, but once I got started it was hard to stop, particularly when so much of what made tonight's win special was the way that we got it done. It's not that this season we'd lost most of the games like tonight's... we lost all of them. And this time -- for the first time -- as much as J'Covan Brown again did what he does, the players around him stepped up and delivered what they could to help us get across the finish line.
That's what I loved about tonight's win. It provided some desperately needed closure -- the elusive triumph that this team has been battling its ass off to try and achieve. Whatever else you might say about this team, they have fought hard for it all season long, and if their ceiling is a good bit lower than what we're used to and this is the pinnacle for this group... when it mattered most, in perhaps their final opportunity, they pulled it all together and did what they'd been trying so hard to do but had fallen just short of so many times before.
J'Covan Brown not only played well, but he was brilliant when it mattered most. In his previous opportunity to help us pick up a big, Tournament-clinching win in the final minute, he made an uncharacteristic unforced error, throwing the ball away to Baylor on the Longhorns' final possession. Tonight he was the star down the stretch and capped it by hitting the game-winning shot -- in a must-have win -- that in all likelihood locks up Texas' 14th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
After a season that (fairly or not) has been largely defined by his failure to meet the exceedingly high expectations of TJ Ford-dreaming fans, Myck Kabongo finally delivered that elite performance tonight -- ironically enough, with such a quiet series of contributions that some may not have realized it. But make no mistake: in my view, Texas' freshman point guard deserves Co-MVP honors with J'Covan Brown. Kabongo ran the point with poise and purpose, contributing 11 critical points and 5 assists, but it was his work that was less noticeable that elevated the performance from good to great: 39 minutes played, zero turnovers, and the most consistent and important defense of the night -- with just a single foul, it's worth noting. The relentless defense Kabongo played on Christopherson was as important to the win as any other single thing that happened.
Tonight we saw from Myck Kabongo the kind of matured, all-around performance that provides elite-player value. It wasn't flashy or dominant... just consistently very good, on both ends of the floor, for virtually the entire game.
Texas' other two freshmen guards aren't able to contribute all the things that Kabongo can, but I was proud of both Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan for finding their own ways to contribute important value to the team. Julien Lewis did yeoman's work chasing around Iowa State's sharpshooting guards on the perimeter, and even more important than the 9 points he scored, with Texas shorthanded and undersized he got his hands dirty and went to the glass, picking up 7 big boards.
For his part, I was impressed that Sheldon McClellan avoided the trap of hanging back passively, particularly after Anthony Booker monster-blocked his first field goal attempt ten rows into the stands. Immediately after it happened, I despaired about its effect on McClellan's assertiveness, but practically before I could articulate the sentiment McClellan slid into a soft spot near the top of the key and drained a 17-footer. McClellan tonight wasn't the high-impact player that he's capable of one day becoming, but with his 21 minutes he did what we need from him as he is right now, looking for places to attack offensively, and contributing 9 big points in the process.
Just like the guards, our frontcourt players battled hard and contributed the value that they're capable of. I'm happy tonight for Clint Chapman, who left it all on the floor in 27 tough, physical minutes. Each of his 10 points seemed to come at huge moments in the game when we desperately needed a bucket, he was active on the glass where he secured a team-high 8 rebounds, and he did a hell of a job doing his part in our defensive gameplan for Royce White. When we threw Chapman at White to open the game, I had my doubts, but while Iowa State's point-forward got the better of Chapman here and there, on the whole Texas' senior forward acquitted himself exceedingly well, helping to keep the game close when the Longhorns couldn't buy a bucket.
Jaylen Bond gave us exactly what you hope to get from him across his 18 minutes, not hurting us on defense, while giving us an active, athletic body on the glass (4 offensive boards) and even chipping in 4 points, including a gorgeous, soft-touch bank shot off a smooth and well-coordinated drop-step move that was far, far outside the scope of anything we'd seen from Bonds all season long. Tonight really was our night.
And finally, although poor Jonathan Holmes is the only Longhorn who struggled in this game, even he managed to bury what could have been a hauntingly bad night, making the game-clinching play with a terrific steal and two money free throws to extend our lead to two possessions.
Then there's the matter of our coach... Wherever you come out on the ceiling for Rick Barnes, I hope for your sake that you not only were able to enjoy this win even half as much as I did, but felt a genuine appreciation for what he's done with this program over the past 14 seasons. I certainly beamed with satisfaction watching the Longhorns head coach during his post-game interview, when Barnes couldn't stop grinning like a 12 year-old kid who'd just scored a game-winning basket.
Some years, you've got a Final Four contender and that kind of elation comes only upon cutting down the Regional's nets. But sometimes you don't, and the challenge this year was to find a way to develop this very young and limited team enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. At various times, it seemed like the team would get there -- like it had broken through -- but time and again, we fell a little short. The team made progress, and Lord knows the team battled hard every step of the way, but after the lackluster finish to the regular season -- highlighted by the letdown in Stillwater -- it had to feel for Rick Barnes just like it did for us: like it just wasn't going to happen for this team.
But tonight, it did. In the grand scheme of things, beating this good-not-great Iowa State team isn't going to stand out on Rick Barnes' resume of accomplishments, nor will earning a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. But for those of us who lived and died with this team throughout this season, tonight's win -- and the NCAA Tournament bid it secures -- feels tremendous. Finally, they did it. Whatever else happens, they didn't fall short; when it mattered most, they finally pulled through.
Thirty minutes after the game, in the post-game press conference, a still-glowing Rick Barnes recounted to reporters his favorite moment from the game. With about a minute remaining, Myck Kabongo ran over to Barnes and suggested that he sub in Jaylen Bond, to enable Texas the option to switch defensively on screens.
"After the game," Barnes told reporters, "I said to Myck, 'Of all the great things you've done this season, that's the proudest moment I've had.'"
I know exactly what he means.