Texas very nearly stole a precious Big 12 road win in Waco on Saturday afternoon, erasing a 9-point halftime deficit to take the game to overtime, but in the end the Longhorns just couldn't quite keep up with the steady stream of points the Bears accrued from the free throw line and fell 86-79 to Baylor. Led by a breakout performance from point guard Javan Felix (26 points, 5 rebounds, 9 assists, 1 turnover in 43 minutes) and strong second half from Sheldon McClellan, who finally began to assert himself in the second half (14 of his 21 points), the Longhorns did everything they could to win the game, but road wins in the Big 12 are rare for a reason and Baylor was able to escape with a win thanks in part to a massive disparity at the free throw line, where Baylor finished the game with 45 shots from the line to just 14 for the Horns.
Free Throws Prove Decisive
Whereas in 45 minutes of basketball Baylor was only whistled for 12 fouls -- roughly one every TV timeout -- the officials racked up 26 personals on Texas -- call it 23, since the last three in the game's final 30 seconds were purposeful to get the ball back. Last February, Jeff wrote about the issue of free throw disparity favoring Big 12 home teams, and on Saturday the Longhorns' inability to keep Baylor off the line was the difference in the game. It was the difference in regulation, when Baylor went 24 for 30 from the line and Texas just 7 for 10, and it was the difference in overtime, when Baylor made 12 of 15 at the stripe and the Longhorns were limited to just 2 of 4. Prior to the final 6 Baylor attempts that came after Texas was forced to foul, the officials blew the whistle on 4 out of the 5 Bears possessions, giving them 9 free throw attempts, of which they made 7... just enough for an 81-79 lead with 28 seconds left, when Felix missed a jumper to tie it and the only thing Texas could do to stop the clock was -- fittingly, for Saturday afternoon -- foul.
Not that Baylor should be apologizing for the win. You have to give credit to the Bears for putting themselves in a position to draw whistles, and even more so for knocking them down. Baylor knocked down an outstanding 80 percent of their 45 free throw attempts and it's not an exaggeration to say that anything less would have resulted in a loss today. Texas wins that game otherwise. And on the flip side, the Longhorns may not have gotten their fair equivalent in terms of number of attempts, but you have to look in the mirror after an overtime loss when you leave points on the board by making just 9 of your 14 from the line.
Jefferson, Jackson Stellar
Before we turn to the tough luck losers, you have to tip your cap to Pierre Jackson and Cory Jefferson, the two upperclassmen who delivered the win for the Bears in part by shooting a combined 24 for 29 from the line. I was really pleased with our defensive effort against Jackson, as both our guards and bigs did a great job defending in tandem to disrupt Baylor's high ball screen offense, and Jackson never really was able to get settled into a good rhythm offensively. Like all great players do, though, he kept attacking, drew whistles, and knocked down his free throws. Gutty performance against a game defense.
As for Cory Jefferson, well, hark back to what I wrote about Baylor's power forward in my game preview:
Baylor's starting frontcourt is rounded out by junior Cory Jefferson, a 6-9, 210 pain in the ass who just seems to be everywhere, on both ends of the floor. He's active, has a great nose for the ball, very good hands, athleticism, and touch around the rim. Kind of like we used to describe Quincy Acy, basically -- an excellent college forward who does a little bit of everything across 25-30 minutes per game. Big, big match up for Holmes, Bond, and Lammert.
Yup, that about sums up what we saw on Saturday. Jefferson was the hands down MVP of the game, delivering 25 points, 10 boards, 1 block, 2 steals and 0 turnovers in 36 flawless minutes -- including, yes, as many free throw attempts (14) as the entire Texas team. And he made more of his (11). He played a hell of a game, and is more responsible for Baylor emerging with a win instead of a loss than any other player on the team. Impressive performance by the junior.
Felix, McClellan Provide Scoring
As much as this young team has been improving and growing up over the past three weeks, the need to have a couple players step up to provide some scoring remained a glaring concern. We've been talking since the preseason about the importance of McClellan being a scorer, but on ESPNU's college basketball podcast this week, Rick Barnes spent part of his time with Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg talking about how he really expected Javan Felix to start scoring a lot more than he had been to this point, noting that he'd scored 20+ points in both of the Horns' two preseason scrimmages against Gonzaga and Davidson.
After I spent part of Wednesday's Texas Basketball Report writing about Felix's struggles scoring the ball (8.3 points per game on just 32% shooting), Barnes' comment proved to be prescient, as Felix found his touch in his midrange game and finally showed his ability to finish at the rim in scoring a career high 26 points. If we're looking for nits to pick, Felix probably went to the well a couple too many times down the stretch and -- completely gassed from playing all but 2 minutes of the game -- he missed two free throws when the game was knotted at 72 in overtime, but those were the only signs the kid was human on Saturday. And that's before mentioning that he dropped 9 dimes and coughed up just a single turnover. Felix's gem in Waco on Saturday was better than any single game Kabongo played last year and on the whole the freshman got the better of his counterpart on Baylor -- you know, the senior and preseason Big 12 Player of the Year. Yeah, I'd say the kid's a gamer.
As for McClellan, Saturday's second half provided an encouraging step in the right direction, but he's got to bring that approach to the floor from the opening tip -- both because the team needs his scoring and because playing aggressively as a scorer brings out the best in his game. Most players struggle if they try to create offense (as opposed to letting it come to them within an offense), but McClellan seems to have the opposite problem: he excels when he's assertive offensively and has a tendency to struggle when he's deferential. He seemed to get the message following a fairly quiet first half (7 points on 3-7 shooting), playing more aggressively the rest of the way, with good results (14 points on 6-12 shooting).
Texas Frontcourt Outplayed
The Longhorns won the battle in the backcourt, but the Bears' edge in the frontcourt was substantial and, ultimately, decisive. Along with the dominant performance by Jefferson, Baylor got an outstanding game from the freakshow that is Isaiah Austin, who scored 18 points, blocked 2 shots, and grabbed 12 rebounds, including 6 on the offensive glass. Along with the free throws, that last stat -- offensive boards -- was another reason Texas (33 of 74 FGs, 45%) fell just short despite making 10 more field goals than the Bears (23 of 64 FGs, 36%) and limiting them to 3 of 18 from beyond the arc. Both teams missed 41 shots for the game but Baylor wound up nabbing 18 of their own misses, three more than Texas, which is the difference between a win and a loss in a game that tight.
Where Austin and Jefferson carried Baylor, Texas got uneven performances from its frontcourt players. Jaylen Bond looked like a player who hasn't played basketball in a month, playing 18 mostly poor minutes across which he scored just 2 points, grabbed only 3 boards, turned it over 3 times, and fouled out, and Cameron Ridley struggled to get into the flow of the game and mostly sat after a poor first half, finishing with 0 points and 6 boards in just 12 minutes.
The frontcourt play wasn't without its bright spots, however. Jonathan Holmes rallied from a poor first half to deliver some outstanding minutes down the stretch, including a make-you-holler double-stuff possession and a high flying put back dunk. Connor Lammert continues to deliver better and better minutes, giving Texas 24 strong ones against Baylor in which he scored 6 points, pulled down 7 boards and assisted on 3 buckets, with just a single turnover. That continued a trend for Lammert, but Longhorns fans got an unexpected glimpse of excellence from Prince Ibeh on Saturday, as the 6-11 freshman showed up and but for some unfortunate foul trouble was on his way to delivering an impact performance, giving Texas 16 impressive minutes in which he scored 6 points, grabbed 2 boards, blocked 3 shots, and showed that Barnes can play him and dial up the tempo and extend the defense to full court pressure if desired. He's just barely scratching the surface, but the ability he's flashing portends for great things to come in the next few years.
After a football season that for a number of reasons I found very trying (and tiring), I'm really enjoying watching this basketball team develop. After flying to Maui to see us get run out of the gym by Chaminade in person, and after wondering after the no-show against Georgetown if this team might struggle to get to .500 on the year, watching this team the last three weeks and how far it's come, and how quickly, has been really satisfying. It's been encouraging for the potential to close out with a strong run this season, and very exciting with respect to seasons ahead. The team is so young, but what's made them vulnerable in the early going of this season is also what's making them fun to watch develop right now and exciting to project into the future.
Unfortunately, the Blogger Satisfaction Index is not something the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee gives a shit about, and the only thing from holding this season back from being satisfying not just from a developmental but also from a results perspective are near-miss losses to UCLA, Michigan State, and now Baylor. The future will be bright either way, but at the end of the day neither we as fans nor the players themselves will feel anything but disappointed if the team doesn't get to play in the NCAA Tournament come March, and towards that end today's narrow loss was crushing. A win puts Texas at 9-5 with wins versus UNC and at Baylor and already +1 in conference road games, where you hope to pick up a couple over the bottom feeders of the conference and assume losses against just about everyone else, hoping to go 3-6 or 4-5. Close or not, encouraging or not, as we talk about it here tonight, Texas still gets the loss in the standings.
Learning to close out wins against quality teams is the last thing a good team learns to do, and for now we're limited to hoping that the leap these kids have made to improve to being competitive for these wins means that wins will follow soon. First up, a must-win home game on Wednesday night against a middling West Virginia squad.