With pulsating runs, dramatic defensive stops, clutch free throws, and a down-to-the-wire finish, the contest, simply put, was what March Madness is all about. Superlative sophomore point guard T.J. Ford, who could be elected governor of Texas, jubilantly dashed into the stands to greet Longhorn supporters moments after time expired, a stark contrast to his long, painful stroll from last year's Sweet Sixteen post-game press conference.
This time, Texas held on.
With the score knotted at 76 and the PA announcer intoning "Two minutes! Two minutes!" the Horns converted all six attempts from the free throw line while junior F Brian Boddicker (God love him) came up with the program's hugest blocked shot since Guillermo ‘Panama' Myers swatted one away in the closing seconds against Purdue in 1990.
Now, the 2002-03 squad and its late-model Ford stands alongside that vintage 1990 BMW (Lance Blanks, Travis Mays, Joey Wright) as the only pair of Texas teams to reach the Elite Eight. The difference is that the Tournament run of 13 years ago was a pleasant surprise while this year's team expected to be here.
"The Elite Eight was not our goal," Ford said. "Our goal is the national championship. We've got three games to go, starting Sunday."
Ford was but 3-of-15 from the field (0-for-4 from beyond the arch) but was 7-of-7 from the charity stripe and provided nine assists against just one turnover. If anything, the outcome proved that Texas was not a one-man team, Barnes said.
On a night when Texas shot just 34.8 percent (24-of-69 FG. 5-of-18 3-PT) from the field, the team rode the hot hand of G Brandon Mouton, whose 27 points (10-of-18 FG, 4-of-7 3-PT) led all scorers. The junior absolutely had to have this kind of game, particularly since he struggled against Purdue and essentially disappeared from the offensive end in last year's Sweet Sixteen run.
"My teammates were doing a good job of getting me open and I was concentrating tonight on knocking down shots," Mouton said. "My role on this team is to shoot open shots. We're mature enough now to know what our roles are. When I get open looks I just have to have confidence in myself to knock it down."
And just in case the confidence was not there, Barnes made sure that Mouton understood that he had better find it. During the jittery opening minutes, the head coach gave Mouton an earful on the sideline after he passed up an open look.
"I told him you better not turn down another shot," Barnes paraphrased. "I told him, ‘If you're open you shoot it.'"
Texas trailed 8-7 with just under five minutes elapsed in the first half before Ford showed why he's the Naismith Player of the Year. The 5-10 whiz kid converted a steal into a fastbreak layup, drawing the foul against junior G Taliek Brown. Ford's FT made it 10-8, Texas.
Sophomore F/C Emeka Okafor's putback gave the Huskies a 16-15 advantage. The Big East Defensive Player of the Year and the NCAA's top shot blocker this past season paced his team with 21 points (8-of-16) and six blocked shots (it seemed liked they all came on one possession midway through the second half).
Texas went on a 9-2 run, starting with Mouton's jumper just inside the arch and concluding with his trey to give the Horns a 24-18 lead with 9:10 remaining. Junior G Royal Ivey FT's built Texas' first double-digit lead, 39-28, with 3:51 until intermission.
Texas led 44-38 at intermission, despite shooting little more than 32 percent (14-of-43) from the field. But Texas was controlling the boards and drawing the fouls while the Huskies struggled from the free throw line (5-of-14) during the first 20 minutes.
Mouton opened the second half with a trey, prompting UConn head coach Jim Calhoun to burn a time-out after just 24 seconds. Four minutes later, Calhoun was hit with a technical as Ford's free throws rebuilt Texas 10-point advantage, 54-44.
C James Thomas did not score his first FG until five minutes into the second half to make it, 56-46. He would collect but one more bucket the rest of the evening but was true on 9-of-13 from the charity stripe and, more important, grabbed 15 rebounds. The key to beating UConn, Barnes said earlier this week, was controlling the boards. Texas totaled 52 rebounds to Connecticut's 41, leading to 19 second-chance points for the ‘Horns.
Mouton's trey, followed by another swish just inside the arch, gave Texas its largest lead at 62-48. But that's when things began to unravel for the ‘home' team.
G/F Rashad Anderson's three-pointer with 12:10 remaining sparked an 11-0 Connecticut run. What's more, Ford was whistled with his fourth personal less than two minutes later and watched as Connecticut immediately switched to a zone defense and continued to chip away at the Longhorn lead.
"T.J. is a floor general," Ivey said. "When he stepped out the game, we told ourselves we've got to step our game up or we're gonna go home."
Then things got crazy at the 7:56 mark. UConn was awarded four free throws (they hit them all) to draw within, 67-65, after F Marcus White drained a pair, followed by Okafor's freebies when Boddicker was whistled with his fourth personal on a blocking-out foul.
Senior G Terrell Ross, subbing for Ford, dished to Thomas who hit a clutch layup to make it 69-65. But an untimely Texas turnover led to a Taliek Brown fast break layup and, suddenly, the score was knotted is at 71-71, with 5:31 left.
Ford came off the bench ("I made up my mind that I wasn't going to put him back in until they tied the game or took the lead," Barnes said), the Huskies went back to man defense, while Gordon's trey gave UConn its first lead of the second half, 74-71, just 16 seconds later.
A Boddicker free throw tied the score, 74-74, with 3:23 remaining. When Mouton's soft floater hit nothing but net to give Texas a slim 76-74 lead with 2:32 left, the partisan Longhorn crowd erupted as if it were a football game.
With the game tied at 76, Boddicker pulled down a key rebound and Barnes called a timeout with 67 seconds remaining. Ten ticks of the clock later, Thomas stood on the free throw line. (The first one is always the hardest, right?) Thomas had previously clanked the front end of a one-and-one. This time…
Leading 78-76, Texas needed its biggest defensive stop of the season. With 34 seconds left on one of these team's season, F Marcus White drove to the hole while Boddicker (often criticized for drifting out to the wing), held his ground. As White released, Boddicker (get this!) not only blocked the attempt but the ball got wedged between the rim and backboard. And there it remained.
The ball, and the season, literally hung in the balance. But hear the good news: the possession arrow belonged to Texas.
Twenty seconds left, Ivey was exactly where he wanted to be: on the free throw line with the game at stake. (Earlier this season, he told me he lives for this kind of moment.)
Swish. Bounce, rattle, then swish.
Fittingly, Ford completed the scoring with his two free throws with 11 seconds remaining.
Afterwards, a respectful Calhoun talked about how his team had come within a "haht-beat" of the Elite Eight and that he prided his team on playing with "tremendous haht."
He also was one of the few folks north of the Mason-Dixon line to show Texas respect this week.
"I thought the most physical team we played against all year was Pittsburgh," Calhoun said, "but I've re-arranged that. The most physical team we've played all year is clearly Texas…They are deserving of a No. 1 seed."
Texas faces Michigan State Sunday for its first Final Four appearance since 1947.
Here's a thought: if both Texas and Oklahoma win Sunday…guess whaaaat?