The loss puts Texas into a tough spot, needing wins in each of its final three games — at Texas Tech, Oklahoma and at Kansas — to reach the 20-win regular season mark and a winning record in Big 12 play.
"It's a devastating loss for our school, for our fans and for the guys in our locker room," said Texas guard Myck Kabongo.
The Longhorns have lost leads before and have lost close games before. But with Texas running out of chances to gain quality wins before NCAA Tournament selection and with the size of the second-half advantage, this one especially stung and put Texas on the verge of not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Rick Barnes era.
That preparation showed early on, as the Longhorns shredded the Baylor zone despite missing Kabongo for 10 first-half minutes with foul trouble. J'Covan Brown and Julien Lewis stepped up in his absence, scoring 16 points on 10 shots and dishing out six combined assists in the half. Baylor, meanwhile, was held to 28 percent from the field as Texas built a 36-26 advantage at halftime.
The lead boosted to 38-26 just after half, though the Bears made a few key changes, playing largely a three-guard lineup and abandoning the team's patented zone for man-to-man. While Texas still shot well in the second half, it created just enough problems to catapult the Bears back into the game.
But the main improvements came on the offensive end, where Quincy Acy and Pierre Jackson combined to score 32 second-half points. As a team, Baylor shot 50 percent in the second stanza, including 66.7 percent from three.
"The difference in the game in the first half was our defense," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "I think we came out in the second half a totally different team in the first half. But if you think about it, that's kind of been the story of our team all year."
The game was touch-and-go until the very end, when yet another last-minute opportunity fell short. Trailing by four with under a minute left, Kabongo found Jonathan Holmes, who hit a three from the corner to cut the Baylor lead to one. But Jackson drew a Kabongo foul on Baylor's next possession and made both free throws.
That meant that Brown had the ball, down three, with under 20 seconds left. But he was trapped and attempted a cross-court pass that was intercepted by A.J. Walton with 13 seconds to go. Jackson made two more free throws, and Texas never had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead the rest of the way.
"I turned it over," Brown said. "We lost the game. I take the blame."
But the blame could be evenly spread. The Bears (23-5, 10-5 Big 12) excelled thanks to 22 points, 16 rebound and two blocks from Acy and 25 points and six assists from Jackson. On the other side, Texas (17-11, 7-8) fell to 1-8 in games decided by two field goals or less.
"It just shows you we're right there — we just have to finish the job," Kabongo said. "Nobody remembers the team that loses. It's all about winning. You can say we're close, but we have to win."
The Longhorns now find themselves in as close to a must-win situation as a team will find in the regular season. The Longhorns will next take on Texas Tech in Lubbock on Saturday.