Hoops: It's Time You Got To Know P.J. Tucker

Texas basketball has four seniors from last year's Final Four team, but the Horns hoopster making the biggest splash in the talent pool this season is freshman forward <B>P.J. Tucker</B>. His game-winning buzzer-beater Monday at No. 25 Providence is his latest entry to an already dazzling debut.

His five-foot floater in the lane as time expired in overtime lifted Texas to a 79-77 win at the Dunkin Donuts Center before a seething sellout crowd who then belted the court with bottles, cups, ice and profanities. Tucker, meanwhile smiled sheepishly as he walked down the baseline following UT's first buzzer-beater in 15 years and his first one ever.

"I couldn't believe I did it," Tucker said Thursday. "I couldn't believe I made it. I didn't know if it was good or not. It's a good feeling, you know. We were ready to play another overtime, but then they called it good. Then we got off the floor as quick as possible."

With 3.7 seconds left in overtime, the designed play was to quickly get the ball to half-court and then call time out. Instead, Tucker took the inbounds pass in the UT backcourt, sprinted to midcourt, used a behind-the-back dribble to evade the Friar defense, moved to the hole and released his finger-roll floater just before time time expired. It was Texas' first last-second win since G Joey Wright followed his own miss with a lay-up at :00 to lead Texas to an 88-86 win at Houston in January, 1989.

"The floor opened up and I got it," he said. "I looked to call a timeout but, once I got to half-court, it was wide open to the basket. I just took it all the way."

And the precocious freshman just took it upon himself to go coast-to-coast instead of calling for time. Playmakers like Tucker have a way making good head coaches look even better.

"I drew that play up which won the game," said Barnes, trying to suppress a smile. "Who said that wasn't the way it was supposed to go? The name of the game is to put it in the basket and that's what we did. That (yelling for a timeout) was all a decoy. You've got to understand that that's what you have to do. Sometimes you try to throw people off. You noticed that when I yelled 'Timeout', two or three of their players stopped."

And then Barnes stopped kidding.

"(Tucker) did the right thing," Barnes said. "It was just instincts. Players have to make plays. Our plan was to throw it to half-court and call timeout. But, instinctively, when he got the ball, he was the secondary guy that we wanted to get the ball to. I told him, 'If you get it, take it' knowing that I was going to call time-out. I never told him once to dribble to half-court and stop. The last I said to him when the team broke the huddle, 'You're secondary. If it comes to you, take it.' I knew I was going to call timeout. I'm glad the officials didn't hear it. If you look at the tape, I'm calling timeout. It (defense) just parted for him, and he made the play. They went for a steal, twice, and took themselves out of position. Then, at the very end of the play, their guy backed off because he didn't want to foul."

Following disappointing losses against Duke and Arizona, Texas finally knocked off a ranked team before conference play begins at home Saturday against Baylor.

"That was a big game for us," Tucker said. "We really needed that win. We came out focused and got a pretty good jump on them and I think it was a real big win for us."

With so much depth on this year's squad, assistant coaches thought seriously during the preseason about redshirting Tucker. But after just three starts, the freshman is Texas' leading scorer (15.1 ppg) and rebounder (8.2 rpg).

"That was obviously a very good decision we made not to redshirt him," Barnes said.

Before this season, hoops pundits proclaimed the 6-5 Tucker was too small to play power forward. Others say he is basically a guard in a forward's body.

"We didn't expect at this point in time that he'd be our leading scoring and averaging almost 10 rebounds a game," Barnes said. "But he's going to find that he's going to have to take it to another level because the intensity is going to keep climbing every game. Defensively is where he's really impressed me. Everybody looks at his numbers but I know now that, from a defensive standpoint we've got a guy that on the front line if a guy wants to step away from the basket, P.J. Tucker can guard him."

At least one Texas player was not surprised by Tucker's emergence.

"I knew he was going to be that sleeper," senior G Royal Ivey said. "He's just relentless. He's very patient. I played with him the whole summer. He was tenacious. He's helped out the team a lot. He's a hard worker and he's playing to his strength."

The rest of the team, Barnes believes, would concur.

"I think they've accepted him because they want to win," Barnes said. "I think they've got great respect for his work ethic. I think they really, truly respect the fact that he's a gamer. He never changes. What you see him do in games, you see him do every day in practice. Some guys, you can tell by their body language in some games if things are getting to them. I've yet to see him get frazzled at any point this year."

Barnes wants the 2003-04 Longhorns to go postal now that T.J. Ford has taken his game to the Association. While C James Thomas and F Brad Buckman have been slow out of the gate on he young season, Tucker gives Texas the low post presence that Barnes expects of his squad.

"What (Tucker) does I want all of our post guys to do," Barnes said. "Defensively, he does that. He's going to play defense for you. And he's going to rebound even though most of the time he's at a (height) disadvantage simply because he goes and gets it."

Tucker is careful in his shot selection, Barnes said before adding "He has a great knack of knowing where he's effective and he gets himself in that area."

Even before Monday's game, Tucker had already inked his place in the Longhorn record book. His 18 points in the season-opener against Brown tied the freshman debut record while his 13 rebounds set a new school freshman debut mark. Tucker also is the first Texas freshman to record back-to-back double-doubles to start his career. He responded with 27 points and 15 boards (both career bests) in his first start against George Washington on Dec. 29.

"I'm still a freshman," he said. "There's still a lot of stuff I'm still trying to learn and I'm still trying to get a feel for the game. I feel like a freshman every time I come to practice."

[Note: Tucker is featured in the January edition of the Inside Texas magazine.)]

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