March Maddening: Xavier Knocks UT From Tourney

Atlanta, Ga. -- Texas did not lose to upstart Xavier, 79-71, in the not-so-Sweet Sixteen in Atlanta Friday because head coach <B>Rick Barnes </B>got ejected following two quick technicals in the final 3.9 seconds. Nor did it forfeit its chances when its leading scorer <B>Brandon Mouton</B> (21 points) fouled out at the 2:09 mark. The argument here is that the one persistent problem that has hurt Texas in an otherwise outstanding season is where it stubbed its toe in the Big Dance.

Here is something I have said all year: it wasn't the lack of backcourt that has hurt Texas. It has been the frontcourt's inconsistency in laying down chip shots around the rim.

This time junior C Jason Klotz can't blame the altitude for his subpar performance. No one is laying this loss at Klotz's feet, but sandwiched around his 10-point effort against North Carolina was his 1-of-10 FG performance against Xavier and his 0-6 FG, four turnover performance against Princeton. Klotz is fiercely competitive and was a constant down the stretch during the regular season, but the kid just didn't bring it to the NCAAs.

Talk about T.J. Ford's decision to go pro all you want. (It was the right choice given his spinal condition and, yes, Texas would still be dancing if T.J. were running the floor.) Even so, Texas still had a chance, even with Mouton sidelined with his fifth personal. Senior F Brian Boddicker's trey had just trimmed the Xavier lead, 70-68. Texas held Xavier to just two FTs during the next 2:02 but, unfortunately Texas didn't score at all. (It seems like Klotz had half his misses during that stretch as well.) Boddicker's third three-ball of the night made it 72-71 with 16.8 seconds. Even after G Romain Sato sank his free throws, you're thinking Boddicker now has the hot hand and is gonna send this one to overtime. And, as we all know, Texas owns overtime this season (See Providence. See Texas Tech. See Missouri.)

Junior G Sydmill Harris, the 11th man in Texas' rotation, is not the guy you want firing the clutch three-ball. His attempt was ugly before he even released the ball. The aftermath was even uglier. Barnes walked towards mid-court and out ofthe coaching box to have a conversation about several non-calls down the stretch, including one that would have sent Tucker to the line after a Musketeer used his back as an elevator in grabbing Harris' desperation rebound, leading to his first technical foul of the season. Ref Ted Valentine teed him up a second time shortly thereafter, giving Barnes his first ejection in six years at UT. (Xavier's Sato sank five of six freebies to clinch the right to get eliminated by Duke on Sunday.) Valentine told a pool reporter after the game, "The rules speak for themselves."

Texas has also had trouble getting to the free throw line much of the season in big games, and that was again the case Friday as Xavier converted more FTs (25-of-35) than Texas even attempted (12-of-17). The perimeter-focused Musketeers had 23 second half attempts to the inside-pounding Horns' four, explaining Barnes' justified ire.

Defensively, Texas harassed Xavier into a ragged night as the Musketeers shot 39.7 percent (23-of-58) from the field, including 8-of-25 from three-point range. Texas didn't fare much better, going 26-of 62 (41.9 percent), 7-of-16 (43.8 percent) from beyond the arc.

Xavier's backcourt lived up to billing. Senior Royal Ivey, although more natural in the off-guard position, can still run the floor as well as any Musketeer. It's just that Xavier has two outstanding guards in Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato. While Chalmers tallied a career-high 31 points in the Musketeers win over Mississippi State, Sato kept Texas at arms length with his 27 points.

Xavier's overall superior backcourt talent was evident in its crisp ball movement and dribble penetration. (In fact, the score is a lot uglier if Xavier had knocked down some of its wide-open threes in the second half.) Yet, this is arguably Texas' ballgame if it had any sort of consistent inside presence on Friday from someone other than F P.J. Tucker. The freshman finished with the game's only double-double (10 points, 10 boards), but he only hit four of his 10 attempts.

"Our posts were doing a great job of getting position inside and we were looking to them," Mouton said. "There was a lot of contact going on in the low post but you still have to finish plays. It's just tough. When you're that close and they don't fall for you, that's basketball. That happens. Tonight it was just tough for us."

"We got good looks and I think our posts did a good job fighting for position and they were making good shot attempts but the ball didn't fall for us and that happens in basketball," Ivey added.

It happened too often for UT's big men throughout the entire '03-'04 season.

Barnes said earlier this week that the season's biggest disappointment was senior C James Thomas' back injury that severely limited his production (half of what it was last season). In fact, it's a crying shame. No one's making excuses, but last year's Big 12 Chairman of the Boards was a difference-maker. He was an intimidating presence that did the dirty work. He cleared out space for rebounds and came up with the second-chance points. Against Xavier: zero points, zero boards.

Overall, Texas was uncharacteristically outrebounded, 34-32.

The year's second biggest disappointment, Barnes said, was sophomore F Brad Buckman's slump that saw his FG percentage plummet from his team-leading 53 percent one year ago to lowest among scholarship athletes at mid-season. Thomas played through pain; Buckman experienced a mini-revival but not enough to carry the team. Buckman contributed seven points and four blocks Friday but both he and Thomas have been shells of their former selves. Add to Klotz's atypical performance, the lack of inside scoring muscle (not to mention guards Kenny Taylor and Edgar Moreno combining for zero points), Texas' scoring punch was severely short-circuited, particularly when Mouton got into foul trouble.

Still, this one got away from Texas early in the second half when the Horns suffered another of those untimely scoring droughts. The four-minute stretch paled in comparison to some of the Dust Bowl-like droughts that plagued the team during the Big 12 Tournament, but it resulted in a 9-0 Xavier run and a lead that the Musketeers would never relinquish. Texas trailed 44-41 at the break but Tucker's FG knotted it at 50 with 15 minutes remaining. But it was all Chalmers and Sato during that 9-0 run, beginning with Sato's shot from beyond the arc. C Anthony Myles bucket made a 13-3 Xavier run and the Musketeers had their biggest lead, 63-53.

Texas fought back with a steady diet of Mouton and Boddicker. But when Mouton was whistled for his fifth, it largely fell to Texas' on-again, off-again frontcourt to try and pull this one out. Instead, Barnes was tossed out and exited through the Xavier section of the Georgia Dome. Texas got damn few calls to go their way down the stretch, none more glaring than the one that led to Barnes' ejection. The Horns did not see a coach who lost his composure, but rather a coach who is still fighting for them even with less than four seconds remaining and the outcome no longer in doubt.

Texas finishes the season at 25-8, including a school-record third-straight Sweet Sixteen appearance. Longhorn seniors graduate as the winningest group in program history and spent the entire season ranked among the Top 20, usually in the Top 15. The group, known as the 'foundation' of modern-day Texas basketball, has also laid the groundwork for what most consider to be the top-ranked recruiting class of 2004.

"Texas is going to be a great program for years to come," Ivey said. "There's a great recruiting class coming in and it's not going to stop here."

Unfortunately for the Longhorn seniors, who according to Mouton came to Texas "to win a national championship," their careers stopped in Atlanta, three games short of that elusive goal.

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