AUSTIN, Texas — Rick Barnes was finally ready.
Seven years after his 17-year tenure with the Texas Longhorns came to an end, the all-time winningest coach in program history agreed to make his return to the Erwin Center in its final season.
“I said for years I didn’t want to come back — I didn’t want it to be about me,” Barnes said after the game.
Barnes eventually relented, so the No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers made the trip to Austin on Saturday as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, with Barnes receiving an emotional tribute before the game in front of a number of former players, including TJ Ford, among the first sellout crowd at the Erwin Center since 2016.
In a game that lived up to its billing as a defensive slugfest, Texas held off a late Tennessee comeback to pull out a 52-51 win when senior forward Timmy Allen hit his second free-throw attempt with 6.2 seconds remaining. Just before the buzzer, Tennessee guard Josiah James-Jordan missed an open three-pointer despite keying the run by the Volunteers, scoring eight of his 11 points in the last 6:37.
“I prepared for that moment, I earned that moment,” Allen said of his game-winning free throw. “So I’m just glad I knocked it down for my team.”
Allen’s free throw, which came after Texas head coach Chris Beard called a timeout to set up his defense following Allen’s miss on his first attempt, was the only point scored by the Longhorns in the final 5:32 as Texas struggled with turnovers and missed five straight free throws before Allen hit the go-ahead attempt.
The struggles in yet another extended scoring drought allowed Tennessee to surge back from a 17-point deficit with 7:57 remaining, aided by a full-court press that made it difficult for Texas to get into its halfcourt offense.
“They obviously turned up the heat,” Allen said. “They were trapping Marcus [Carr] as soon as he got the ball and we had to come back and get it. We struggled in that situation, but at the end of the day we won the game. There’s obviously a lot of things we can learn from watching the film and getting better at closing games.”
The trip to the line allowed Allen an attempt at redemption after turning the ball over three times in the final five minutes. Protecting the basketball was an issue for the Horns the entire game — Texas finished with 18 turnovers. andTennessee consistently took advantage, scoring 22 points off the giveaways, 43 percent of their total.
Because the Volunteers were also able to secure 15 offensive rebounds, Tennessee had a plus-16 advantage in shot attempts over Texas.
The Longhorns were able to overcome that margin in part thanks to a game-high 18 points by senior guard Courtney Ramey, who hit three three-pointers in the second half as Texas built its lead after nearly finishing the first half tied with Tennessee. The two-point margin for the Longhorns was thanks to a smart play by Ramey, who leaned into contact as he attempted a halfcourt shot to beat the buzzer and drew the foul, making two of his three free throws.
“We shouldn’t have put ourselves in that position there — we’ve done it twice already this year,” Barnes said.
Surprisingly tentative play hurt the Volunteers, too, particularly from leading scorer Santiago Vescovi, whose only field goal came with 4:37 remaining. He was 1-of-8 shooting, missing all five of his three-point attempts and leaving Barnes frustrated with his unwillingness to take shots.
“They did a good job and other people have, too, this season, but he had some shots,” Barnes said. “He should have shot the ball. I took him out and told him, ‘If you thought you were going to get wide-open looks, you’re not. You’ve been guarded like this all year.’”
When Tennessee was willing to take shots, they weren’t connecting early in the second half, failing to connect on their first six and missing 12 of their 13 overall.
But ramping up the aggressiveness on defense seemed the help the offense as the Volunteers went on a 14-0 run to tie the game with 1:23 remaining, but couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity at the end of the game.
“We would have liked to play better tonight, but I choose to look at the positives — soldout crowd, our guys play with a lot of poise, when we didn’t turn the ball over our offense was as good as it’s been, and then our defense again shows up to guard that team to 50 points. It speaks a lot for our guys,” Beard said.
Texas is now 16-0 this season when holding opponents under 60 points with a road trip to Lubbock to face Texas Tech looming on Tuesday in what will be another emotional game as the Red Raiders prepare to share their vitriol with Beard’s departure in person for the first time.