Trailing 25-22 at the break, the Horns opened the second half with a 14-2 run, hitting their first five FG and forcing the slow-it-down Tigers out of their game. Sophomore G Kenton Paulino added to the desperately needed offensive fireworks with a pair from beyond the arc, but it was Mouton who lit the fuse. Mouton opened the second half with a three-pointer, a driving layup and then another trey as the Horns grabbed a 33-29 lead over the upset-minded Tigers.
"Our plan was to come out and be aggressive," Mouton said. "We set some hard screens and were getting some great looks. The threes came. This team is capable of knocking down some threes."
More than capable, as Texas shot 68.8 percent from the beyond the arc. (Now if only Texas was just as capable offensively in the paint, where Jason Klotz, Brian Boddicker and P.J. Tucker all missed very make-able shots from short range.) Overall, the Horns were 23-of-49 (46.9 percent) from the field but misfired far too often around the rim. Junior C Klotz, a mainstay down the stretch during the regular season, had his toughest night of the year with zero points (0-of-6 FG) and four turnovers.
Head Coach Rick Barnes reminded his team at halftime that Texas also trailed Princeton by three before pulling out a win during their last meeting in Austin in December 2002. He pointed out that Texas would have enjoyed the halftime advantage had it not blown so many layups and free throws. His strategy was to increase the pressure at both ends of the floor. Oh, and get the ball to Mouton when it was clear that Texas' leading scorer had the hot hand.
"We never tried to put pressure on Brandon," Barnes said, "but when he got going we were yelling at our guards to get him the ball."
That, or get G Royal Ivey the ball. The senior was UT's second leading scorer with 15 points (5-of-6 FG) and recorded a game-high eight rebounds. When Ivey sank a pair of free throws to give Texas a 48-36 advantage with 9:09 remaining, he joined Mouton and senior center Thomas in notching 1,000-plus career points.
"We leaned heavily on our seniors tonight," Barnes said. "And they did what we needed them to do."
I mentioned earlier this week that the Princeton game would be about as pleasant as a trip to the dentist. The first half was more like a visit to the proctologist. The Texas offense, AWOL for two weeks, endured an eight-minute scoring drought early in the first half and then went another stretch of nearly 4:30 without a bucket. In fact, Texas had more turnovers (7) than FG (4) during the first 12 minutes of play.
The Tigers, meanwhile, went 7:59 without a FG but trailed by just 6-5 at the 11:35 mark. A pair of Will Venable FTs regained the lead for the Tigers while his free throws nearly two minutes later completed a 12-0 Princeton run. The Tigers lead 14-6 before Texas went to a half court trapping defense while still looking for its offense. Senior F Brian Boddicker broke the scoring drought with his shot from beyond the arc to make it 17-12. Boddicker would add two more treys to account for half of Texas' 22 points at the break.
Boddicker finished with 14 points (5-of-7 FG), his first double-digit outing since the Feb. 8 rout of Oklahoma.
"If he didn't hit those threes, we would have been down by a lot," Ivey said. "He hit those threes and he did his job tonight."
As it was, Texas tied a season-low for first-half points after going 8-of-25 from the field.
The opening round of the NCAAs is the most difficult, Barnes said, adding that "the key is getting started." For Texas, the key was getting started in the second half. Indeed, a Texas team that shot just 32 percent before the break lit it up in the second half, connecting on 15-of-25 FG (60 percent).
"You prepare for close games," Barnes said. "You just feel it's going to happen. If you go in with that mindset. it helps you when you're down three. I don't think there's any question that the first game is the hardest game for everybody."
Mouton's layup with 17:31 remaining gave Texas the lead for good, 30-29. His third straight trey gave Texas some breathing room at 42-33 before Ivey's putback gave Texas its first double-digit advantage of the evening. The Horns finished strong with a 10-1 run capped by Boddicker's fourth trey of the night and an Ivey bucket.
Texas committed 16 turnovers while forcing 18. As expected, the Horns dominated the glass, 43-23. Defensively, Barnes' strategy was to specifically guard against Princeton's dribble penetration and step up the D during the final 15 seconds of the Tigers' patented milk-the-clock offense. The strategy paid off as Princeton was held to 18-of-51 FG (35.3 percent) including just 5-of-26 (19.2 percent) from beyond the arc.
"We have a group guys that just want to win," Mouton said. "With that mentality, we go out and we play for each other. I feel we're doing that now. We're playing for each other now."
And, on Saturday, they will also be playing for a school record third straight appearance in the Sweet Sixteen vs. the tradition-rich Tar Heels.