Exactly six years after losing to the Northern Iowa Panthers on a half-court heave, the No. 6 Texas Longhorns took some serious momentum into halftime when senior guard Marcus Carr banked in a shot from well beyond the half-court line.
“The end of the first half is always critical for any team,” head coach Chris Beard said.
In that moment, in making a shot that Carr said he practices nearly every time he’s in the gym, all the demons from the eight years between NCAA Tournament wins for the Longhorns seemed to dissipate and Beard’s team dominated in the second half for an 81-73 win over the No. 11 seed Virginia Tech Hokies in Milwaukee on Friday, the first win in the Big Dance since 2014.
“I let it go with confidence,” Carr said. “I wasn’t really surprised when it went in.”
With the victory, Beard remains undefeated in the opening round of the tournament at 5-0 and now boasts an 11-4 record overall, setting up a Sunday matchup against No. 3 seed Purdue, comfortable 78-56 winners over No. 14 seed Yale earlier Friday.
“This will be a confidence builder as the tournament goes on, because I think we just beat one of the best teams in the tournament,” Beard said.
What was the secret for the Longhorns?
Beard joked that it was the spinach salad at the team hotel that had him wanting to stick around Milwaukee for an extra game. Not just any spinach salad, but the best he’s ever had.
In actuality, it was strong performances by all five starters as Texas bounced back from its early exit from the Big 12 Tournament and answered many of the questions Beard had posed publicly about his team. For one cathartic game, at least.
Senior guard Andrew Jones scored a game-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-7 three-pointers, with all those three-point makes coming in the first half when Jones kept the Longhorns in the game with 17 points as Texas got off to a slow start, failing to score until the 15:00 mark of the first half.
“Drew carried us in the first half, so shoutout to him on that,” senior forward Timmy Allen said.
At halftime, Virginia Tech started scheming to limit Jones and the Horns adjusted.
“Coach Young does a great job. He obviously made a couple of adjustments on Andrew, and our guys did a great job feeding off of that. Some of our shots we got in the second half were because they were so focused on Jones,” Beard said.
In the second half, Carr and Allen stepped up to provide support, combining to score 12 of the team’s first 14 points as Texas used a 14-3 run to open up a 16-point lead prior to the under-eight timeout. Allen fouled out with 16 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Carr played one of his best games in burnt orange and white, hitting key shots after halftime and scoring 15 points while adding a season-high nine assists against a single turnover after the outcome was already virtually assured.
Senior guard Courtney Ramey played his typically strong defense, helping limit Virginia Tech to 4-of-12 shooting from the three-point line, well below the season average of nine made three-pointers per game. It was a season-low in attempts and made threes for the Hokies as the Horns played off-ball screens at a high level to take away easy looks.
“They were taking away easy catches on the top of the key,” said Virginia Tech guard Hunter Cattoor, who only hit one three after scoring 31 points against Duke in the ACC Tournament title game. “Whenever we came down the screen they were topping it, not letting us come off easily and so it kind of forced us to get to the basket and get two.”
Beard called defending the three-point line the first layer of a three-layer plan on Friday.
In the second half, Ramey also stepped up by hitting key shots, including a late-clock jumper with 3:34 remaining and a three with 2:08 remaining to take a 73-57 lead, a shot that felt like the dagger. Ramey finished with 10 points and 5-of-6 shooting from the free-throw line, scoring all 10 points after halftime.
One of the areas Beard questioned about his team was its toughness and senior forward Christian Bishop supplied it in spades on Friday with a rugged effort that included 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting with a block and a steal. A steal and a run-out dunk with 8:38 remaining in the second half was one of the key plays in the game’s decisive run.
Junior guard Brock Cunningham provided some toughness, too, quickly securing two offensive rebounds, dishing an assist, getting a steal, and drawing fouls on the offensive glass and playing post defense in the first half as Texas started to find its rhythm. Late in the game, his trademark style of play was a little bit too much, as Cunningham was called for a physical foul and had a questionable deadball contact technical whistled against him on review, which allowed Virginia Tech to score four points to cut the lead to 10. When the Hokies hit a subsequent three with 45 seconds remaining, the margin was seven points, but the Horns were able to close the game without any further drama when Bishop made a free throw and Jones had a run-out dunk with 29 seconds left.
Texas was the aggressor for almost the entire game, playing its physical brand of defense and tightening up its defensive rotations after a slow start, showing the accountability that Beard demands in the little things. Two small plays from senior guard Jase Febres stood out — fighting around a screen to draw a foul on Virginia Tech star Keve Aluma, who was limited due to foul trouble, and then providing excellent positional help defense on a rotation.
When the Hokies were pressing late in the game, the Horns struggled with some turnovers, but finished with only nine for the game, leading to only 11 points for Virginia Tech. Against an average offensive rebounding team, Texas limited Virginia Tech to four offensive rebounds and five second-chance points.
Meanwhile, aggressive offensive rebounding helped keep the Longhorns in the game early when shots weren’t falling from inside the arc — Texas scored its first 10 points on second-chance points after starting 1-of-11 shooting on two-point attempts.
It kept the Longhorns within striking distances as Jones started to heat up and Carr finished the half with his momentum-changing shot.
“I think we wanted to win bad,” Ramey said. “I think all 11 guys wanted to win bad. I think it finally showed today.”
Now Texas has a chance to make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008 with an upset over Purdue.
“I think they’re one of the best teams in the country, so we’re going to have to play better than we did today,” Beard said.