What's more, college hoops' least respected top seed is the only No. 1 ticketed for New Orleans. Three top seeds failed to make a Final Four for the ninth time in the past 24 years, but here's a good omen: the last time it happened, Michigan State won the national title in 2000. Here's another good sign: C James Thomas was still maniacally fighting for a loose ball with just 18 seconds on the game clock and Texas boasting a nine point lead. These kids are warriors who personify both the highly disciplined yet fiercely competitive nature of their head coach.
For now, Rick Barnes has accomplished more in his five years at Texas than any of its other head coaches in a similar span. In 1998, he inherited an unraveling program with divided player loyalty. But Barnes took a nightmarish situation and laid the foundation for a dream.
"We're living the dream," Barnes said. "It's what you've talked about, starting with the recruiting process. It's what you start talking about every time you go on the floor. You always find a way, from the first game of the season to the last, to motivate the team and to make them understand the importance of every game and what this time of year means."
But before Texas could live the dream, it lived from beyond the three-point line in first half (6-of-9 treys) and then stayed alive at the free throw line in the final 20 minutes (24-of-30). Wondrous point guard T. J. Ford overcame spotty first half shooting before finishing with a game-high 19 points, and embraced Barnes in an extended buddy hug in the post-game euphoria just before the sophomore was named the South Regional's Most Outstanding Player.
"My wife would probably like me to hug her like that this time of year," Barnes said.
Barnes has already been to the Final Four -- as a spectator. But it was enough for him to dream primarily in terms of bringing his players along with him.
"Once I became a coach, I've always said that if I could do one thing for my team, I would love for them to go to a Final Four," Barnes said, "because if they can get there and feel it and see it, they would understand all the work and how hard it is to get there and they would never question anything that you told them. These guys never have questioned anything but the fact is they're going to get to feel something. I told them, ‘You're going to feel now what it's like.'"
Junior F Brian Boddicker and sophomore G Sydmill Harris were certainly feeling it Sunday. While Texas starters combined for 6-of-17 FG in the first half, Boddicker and Harris came off the bench and both connected on 4-of-5 FGs by intermission. Boddicker's line included three treys while Harris registered two from beyond the arch.
"All year we've depended on our bench," Ford said. "That's how we go out as a unit. We consider ourselves as a team and everyone comes in and does their job. It's what we expect them to come in and do. Everyone did their job tonight, and that's how we got the win."
There were four ties and three lead changes during the first eight minutes, but Harris' trey would give Texas the lead for good at 18-16. Sophomore F Jason Klotz's turn-around jump shot completed a 7-1 run for the Horns, giving the home team some breathing room at 22-17 midway through the first half.
Harris' high-arching, NBA-range trey (that he launched from just on the other side of the Alamo) spotted Texas a 25-19 lead. But the No. 7 seed drew within a point after sophomore F Alan Anderson completed an old-fashion three-point play on a continuation foul, followed by a senior C Aloysius Anagonye FT.
After misfiring on his first three attempts, junior G Brandon Mouton badly needed to get untracked as much as his team had to have his bucket from beyond the arch, giving Texas a 28-24 lead and sparking a 10-0 run with 8:24 remaining. Mouton was also named to the All-Tournament team, contributing 16 points (4-of-11 FG, 7-of-10 FT) on the heels of his career-best 27 points against Connecticut Friday.
After Boddicker drained a shot from just inside the three-point line, Ford drew a charge on Anderson, setting up a Brad Buckman layup.
Boddicker's trey gave Texas its first double-digit lead of the afternoon at 35-24 before MSU sophomore G Kelvin Torbert's FG ended the Longhorn stampede.
Boddicker's third 3-pointer at the three minute mark gave Texas it's largest lead of the game, 41-30.
"I'm proud of anything I can do to help this team win," Boddicker said, "whether it's boxing out and grabbing some rebounds or just playing solid D. Those shots just came to me, and I took them. Anytime I get an open look, I'm going to take it. With T.J.'s penetration, some teams are just so worried about getting back on defense that sometimes I can just get lost in transition."
Boddicker would finish with 15 points (6-of-10) while Harris registered 12 (4-of-6). The Spartans would finish the half with an 8-2 run, giving Texas a precarious 43-38 lead at the break. Still, it left Spartan head coach Tom Izzo demanding to know why his team did not follow his defensive game plan.
"I told them that any (Texas player) with a ‘three' on his jersey (Mouton, Harris, Boddicker) is a shooter," Izzo said, "and we didn't guard them. And that was disappointing."
C James Thomas (0-for-1 in the first half) picked up his third personal just 12 seconds into the second half. But it was the Horns who soon started drawing the fouls against MSU. After connecting on just 5-of-8 freebies before intermission, the Horns dominated the free throw line (29-of-38) by game's end.
The Spartans hit 18-of 26 FT and shot 46 percent (25-of-54) for the game, but kept it too-close-for-comfort by hitting six-of-12 treys in the second half. Torbert's three-pointer chipped into Texas' lead, 56-51, with 13:15 on the game clock. But when MSU was whistled for its tenth team foul with 11:28 remaining, the Horns could have had their mail forwarded to the charity stripe.
"We came aggressive and looking to run as much as possible," Barnes said. "We talked about it at halftime. We were going to run and try to get some easy baskets because you don't want to have to come down and play against their set defense all the time. We felt like we needed to keep trying to score."
Texas did score; it's just that 24 of its 42 second-half points were from free throws. When G Maurice Ager was whistled for his fourth personal with 11:05 remaining, the Spartans had 11 team fouls to just three for Texas.
The Spartans had one final run in them. C Paul Davis (4-of-9 FG, 7-of-12 FT) led his team with 15 points, including a layup with 7:21 remaining to narrow the Texas lead, 68-63. But Ford's sweet floater (the ball never touched nylon) began to rebuild the cushion.
When F Brad Buckman (3-of-4, 11 points) converted an old-fashioned three point play after being fouled by F Eraz Lorbek, the Austin freshman responded with a fist-pumping, war-whooping outburst that sent the
Texas contingency (near 30,000 of the 30,169 announced attendance) into a frenzy.
The Horns smelled blood when Ford's driving lay-up gave Texas a 77-68 margin with 4:30 remaining. Ford also did a masterful job in holding G Chris Hill, MSU's only player to average in double figures this season, to single digits. But when Hill's three-point attempt rattled in, it was suddenly a two-possession game at 79-74 with 2:22 remaining.
Boddicker answered with his 15th point of the afternoon and then, for all his clutch bench points, the Duncanville native grabbed the most important rebound of his career after G Royal Ivey misfired with 60 seconds left and Texas hanging on to an 81-76 lead.
But after F Alan Anderson was whistled with an intentional foul, Mouton stood alone on the free throw line and on history's door step.
So what that he only made one? Fittingly, the game ended with Ford swishing both of his free throws before looking for someone to hug.
"The thing is, I love Coach," Ford said. "He didn't let me settle…he makes us work hard every day. Even in the off-season, he's real motivational. I treat him like he's may father and I really look up to him for advice. This win was very important for his career and also for everyone on our team to make it to the Final Four because we know how hard it is to get there. To be considered a number one seed and actually make it after watching the other number one seeds drop off these past couple of days…"
Ford paused before continuing.
"…it was just a great moment to know we're able to go to New Orleans."
In fact, it was almost like a dream.