It's almost as if the 2009-10 campaign has been a Cinderella season for the No.6 Texas Longhorns.
During the 2009 portion of the season, Rick Barnes' immensely talented squad played at a level worthy of a team going to a grand ball, as it took on all comers and smashed them to smithereens, rolling to 12 straight double-digit wins. However, from the very moment that the clock struck midnight on the New Year, it's as if Barnes' team has lost its glass slipper.
The confidence and swagger that this Longhorns squad played with earlier this season has been replaced by shaken and shell-shocked faces. The ball is over.
Never has that been more apparent than in the aftermath of Texas' 80-77 overtime loss to Big 12 rival Baylor on Saturday. As the Bears celebrated a breakthrough win, the look on senior All-American Damion James said it all.
Shock. Disbelief. Anger.
Roll all of those emotions together and that's what you have for a team that was a second away from a thrilling comeback, but is suddenly left with the realization that no matter what their ranking might suggest - three losses in their last four games tells them they aren't elite.
"Obviously, it's a disappointing loss," Narnes said. "When you give up 27 points off turnovers and miss free throws coming down the stretch missing a block out here or there in a game when you're not playing your best offensively is the one thing you can't do."
After falling behind by 14 points in the second half, it's a wonder that the poor-shooting Longhorns even had a chance to win this game, but there they were with a late lead in the final seconds. With only 15 seconds remaining in the game, the Longhorns held a one-point lead and their best free throw shooter was at the line. However, the almost-automatic J'Covan Brown made only one of two shots at the line and the two-point margin allowed just enough room for the Bears to fire a dagger right into UT's heart.
"It was kind of frustrating," Brown said of his miss in the final seconds that allowed the Bears to remain within a single basket. "When we were in the huddle Damion said, `Let's get this win.' I walked to the free throw line with confidence. When I released it, it looked perfect. It was just short. I was mad at myself because usually I don't miss those in that situation."
Anthony Jones followed up Ekpe Udoh's desperation shot with a lay-up with only 0.3 seconds left on the clock to force the game into overtime and from there, the Bears out-executed the Longhorns for the win.
"We got them to shoot the kind of shot you want them to shoot and we gave up an offensive rebound," Barnes said. "In that situation you've got to finish that possession and the game's over."
Of course, finishing games isn't the only problem that the Longhorns have had in recent weeks. The loss a home against a team that hasn't won in Austin since the Tom Penders had as much to do with starting as finishing. The Longhorns spent most of the first half trying to get out of their own way, as a flood of turnovers, missed lay-ups and a lock of focus allowed the Bears to race out to a 38-29 halftime lead.
That lead grew to 45-31 with 16:41 remaining in the game, but the Longhorns finally dialed into the game by increasing the intensity of their defense and eventually made a charge behind the play of James (20 points and 19 rebounds) and Brown (15 points and four assists). Eventually, the Longhorns took a 61-58 lead with just over a minute remaining, but the season-long battle at the free throw line doomed their chances at victory.
Overall, the Longhorns converted only 19 of 31 free throws (61.3-percent), including only four of eight in overtime. For the first time all season, this team's free throw issues finally cost them a game.
"It is what it is," Barnes said. "You're going to be in those games. Does it get frustrating? It does, and I think it does for the players, too. I wish I could come up with a remedy for it and tell you but I've never been able to figure it out and I don't think any coach can figure it out."
Inside the Numbers
The Longhorns finished the night 27-of-70 from the field (41.4 percent), 2-of-11 (26.7 percent) from three-point land and were 19-of-31 (61.3 percent) from the free throw line. The Bears were 28-of-64 from the field (43.8 percent), 3-of-12 (25.0 percent) from three-point land and were 21-of-28 (77.8 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns beat the Bears in assists (13-9), blocks (7-6), forced turnovers (20-18), second-chance points (11-8) and bench points (27-22). The Beats destroyed the Longhorns in points off turnovers (27-12) and also edged them in transition points (18-12) and steals (13-12). The teams tied each other with 37 rebounds.
Stuck in the zone
The Longhorns have struggled against zone defenses throughout the month of January and that continued in a big way against Baylor, as Texas struggled from the outside from start-to-finish.
With the Bears crowding the paint, the Texas perimeter players were mostly awful on the offensive end. Senior Justin Mason had been a revelation for the team in a win over Texas Tech on Wednesday night, but he took two shots, never attempted a three-point shot and finished with three points.
Meanwhile, the trio of Dogus Balbay, Jai Lucas, Jordan Hamilton combined to score four points on one-of-six shooting. With those four players combining to give the Longhorns almost nothing on the offensive end, the heavy workload fell onto the shoulders of true freshmen Brown and Avery Bradley (a combined four of 13 from three-point range).
The pair had their share of memorable moments in the game, but they also made a number of critical mistakes in the game, as the Baylor backcourt trio of Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn and A.J. Walton clearly won the battle in the backcourt.
James was a beast on the glass for the Longhorns all afternoon, but the rest of the team resembled nothing of the group that has led the nation in rebounding for much of the season.
Senior Dexter Pittman recorded only one rebound in 29 minutes and Gary Johnson collected four in 23 minutes, while a Baylor squad that played only eight players all day had five players collect at least four rebounds.
"It's kind of tough when you're down there and you've got three guys around you," Pittman said. "I tried to not go out of control and get fouls called on me. I just tried to tip the ball to one of my teammates at the top instead of just going up and grabbing it. We've got a great rebounder on our team in Damion. I just box my guy out and I know he's going to come get it."
Bottom line - with the exception of James, the Bears fought harder for the ball over the course of 45 minutes than the Longhorns did. They seemed to want it more.
Things don't get any easier
The Longhorns don't have any time to feel sorry for themselves, as they hit the road and take on Oklahoma State in two days on ESPN's Big Monday Broadcast. They'll finish the week with another road game at Oklahoma.
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