"It means a lot (to get to San Antonio)," said T.J. Ford. "Now we're gonna use that home court advantage. And now that we're here (in the Sweet Sixteen), we'll look at the next tournament we have in San Antonio and make it to New Orleans from there."
That No. 1-seeded Texas would even make it to that next "four-team tournament" (as described by Rick Barnes) in the Alamodome remained in doubt till late in Sunday's Round of 32 match-up with No. 9 Purdue at the BJCC Arena. The Horns trailed the Boilermakers 50-49 with 10 to play and led by just a single bucket, 69-67, as the game approached the two-minute mark. Texas, though, closed out the game with an 8-0 run to advance to the Sixteen.
"Coach said in the timeout that it's winning time, and when it's winning time we lock down and play D," Royal Ivey explained. Lockdown indeed. After Ford knocked down two free throws with 2:01 to play to put Texas up 71-67, the Horns, while scoring on three straight trips, didn't allow Purdue to get off a shot on its next three possessions, forcing a turnover and an offensive foul (a charge by star Willie Deane into Ivey) before T.J. stripped Boilermaker guard Brandon McKnight for the steal, ending any Purdue hopes of a comeback.
Ford finished with eight assists (and uncharacteristically high six turnovers), nine rebounds and a game-high 21 points, but for much of the game, Ford couldn't buy a bucket. T.J. (12) and Brandon Mouton (9) missed a combined 21 shots! But the Horns' sophomore guard took over the game just after the break and again during a two-minute stretch later in the second half, giving Texas a 52-50 lead (a lead that it would not relinquish) with a three-point play with 9:42 left on the clock and then keeping Purdue at arm's length by getting to the line after a dribble penetration and knocking down two free throws, dishing to James Thomas for a dunk on another drive, hitting a fade away jumper and then feeding Mouton for a jumper off another penetration.
"At the start of the game I struggled by missing a few (jumpers) so I tried to get close to basket and find a teammate," Ford said. And that he did. The point guard found the open man eight times, but that number could have easily been far higher had the UT big man converted on some relatively open close-in looks that rolled off the rim.
Despite the misses in the paint, Barnes called "penetration" by both Ford and Ivey the key to the win. Ivey didn't register an assist but he did hit a 15-foot runner that gave the Horns a late four point lead, 69-65, and he extended the Texas advantage to six at 73-67 with two from the line after drawing a foul on a drive to the hoop. Ivey totaled 14 points
The Texas head man also praised Erskin's post play (he finished four of six from the field and three-of-three from the line for 11 points in his 15 minutes on the floor) and Brian Boddicker's three pointers (he hit two of three from beyond the arc for his six points). Sydmill Harris matched Boddicker with six points, all from downtown. Thomas, with a game-high 12 rebounds (to go along with his 11 points, marking his 15th double-double of the season), helped the Horns win the crucial battle of the boards 40-35. Mouton struggled on the offensive end, contributing just six points on a miserable 2-of-11 from the field.
"It was a great team win today," Barnes said. "We had to fight through the foul situation, but I thought when we had to make some plays, we got penetration and showed great poise."
At one point, it looked as if Texas wouldn't need any late-game heroics. After allowing the Boilermakers a basket on their first possession after the break and facing a 33-30 deficit, the Horns went on a 14-4 run to open up their biggest lead of the game, 44-37. Ford, who out-quicked defender McKnight, drove to the basket on UT's first two possessions of the second half, scoring on both to give the Horns a 34-33 advantage. Brett Buscher answered with a 15-footer to give Purdue a one-point cushion, but Texas retook the lead on Thomas' two free throws and added to that lead with two from the line by Ivey, a Boddicker three and Harris trey off of Ford's penetration.
Purdue, though, answered UT's 14-4 run by roaring back with nine straight to take a 46-44 lead. Thomas tipped in an errant Ford attempt to tie it at 46, Ivan Kartelo hit one of two free throws to break the tie, followed by another Boddicker three for a Texas lead and then a Melvin Buckley three for a 50-49 Purdue lead. That would be the last lead of the afternoon for the underdogs as T.J took over.
"I told him to run, to just go by 'em," Barnes said, "and when he started doing that, it was big for us because he started getting his confidence back, which I thought was big for him."
In the first half, T.J. couldn't shake his shooting woes and Texas couldn't shake Purdue. The Horns jumped to an 8-2 lead during a sloppy first five minutes which saw the refs whistle each team for four team fouls. (Contrast that to the early game in Birmingham, when both Louisville and Butler had three fouls each almost three quarters of the way through the second half.) The Boilermakers reeled off six straight to tie it up and the game remained a seesaw battle till the final minutes.
After exchanging free throws that knotted the game at 9, Purdue took its biggest lead of the game on five straight from Deane. Texas, though, retook the lead, 17-16, at the 9:12 mark of the half on two Erskin free throws. The Horns opened up a five-point lead of their own with just over four minutes to play in the opening stanza when Ivey sank one of two freebies, but the Boilermakers inched back to within a point at 28-27 on a Buscher jumper. Erskin again extended the Texas advantage with his patented jump hook (a welcome sight and, along with the win itself, the most gratifying part of the game) to make it 30-27. After Matt Kiefer hit one of two charity stripe attempts with under a minute till the break, Mouton couldn't convert on the Horns' final possession, giving Purdue a final shot at the lead before the half.
McKnight pushed the ball up the right side of the court, fired a pass to Deane on the right wing who heaved the ball towards the basket, but the shot attempt came after the buzzer. But wait...the officials ruled that Deane had released the ball before the clock struck zero. The halftime gift -- and I mean that, halftime had clearly already started when the officials awarded Deane the three-pointer -- gave the Boilermakers a 31-30 lead. The ill-gotten trey gave Deane 12 points in the half (although Ivey put the clamps on him after the break; he scored just one point in the second half).
As both teams headed for their lockerrooms, a justifiably irate Barnes met the refs at midcourt pleading his (correct) case, but the rules do not allow for a review on such a play except at the end of a game.
Barnes said he did not talk to the team about the shot during the intermission, but walking back to the UT bench after the break, Barnes did wave his arms (like a ref's incomplete pass motion in football) and said "No shot" in the direction of all three officials. One of the refs answered back, "We know."
Purdue head coach Gene Keady implied post-game that his team essentially got screwed by the call! "Sometimes getting breaks, like the one we got at the end of the half with that three-pointer, can hurt you," he said. "The officials sometimes feel they have to make calls in the second half to make up for ones like that."
Keady, of course, still thinks the refs cost his team the game back in 1990 in Indianapolis (he said so Saturday in his team's press conference in Birmingham), so take that statement for what it's worth, which is probably just enough for a stem of sour grapes.
Regardless, Keady knows what really beat his team: "Basically, T.J. Ford really hurt us...If you look at the stat line for T.J. Ford you see that he's everything you hear he is."
Ford deflected praise. "I want to thank my teammates," he said. "They stepped up and picked up my slack. This is not a one-man team."
No, T.J., it's a Sweet Sixteen team (for a UT-first second consecutive season). And it's comin' home.