Hoops: Horns grab huge win in Columbia

After painfully close near-upsets against the two teams at the top of the Big 12 standings over the last two weeks, the Horns Sunday finally pulled out a close one in Columbia. The win ensured that only Kansas and Oklahoma, the two teams that eked out wins over the Longhorns recently, remained above Texas in the conference race heading into the Horns' four-game, season-ending stretch.

The W over the Tigers didn't come easy. Matter of fact, it looked at the end like it might not come at all as another heartbreaker loomed on the horizon following a late Missouri run. The Tigers, who held their only lead of the game at 4-2, closed to within a point three times over the game's final four minutes and had multiple opportunities to nail the potential game-winner with less than 20 seconds to play.

With the Horns up 70-69, after T.J. Ford misfired on a runner that would have given Texas a bit of breathing room, Missouri had a chance to play for the final go-ahead shot. MU's all-Big 12 guard Kareem Rush, though, drove into the paint and, because of the defensive presence of James Thomas, forced up a running left-handed attempt that bounced off the rim and out of bounds with 18.7-seconds left on the clock. Although replays showed that Tiger big man Arthur Johnson, who ended up with 14 points and nine boards, knocked the ball out of bounds, the officials awarded the ball to Missouri. After the inbounds, Rush got off another shot that did not drop and Johnson missed the put-back attempt, but Rickey Paulding grabbed the rebound of Johnson's errant shot and was fouled by UT's Thomas, sending the Mizzou sophomore to the line. Paulding, with the chance to give the Tigers the lead, clanked both free throws and then knocked the ball out of bounds while fighting for the second rebound.

The Longhorn victory, though, was still far from in the bag. Missouri heavily pressured the Texas inbounds pass, creating a turnover when Brandon Mouton, scrambling for the loose ball after a poorly thrown inbounds attempt intended for Brian Boddicker, was whistled for traveling. The Tigers had no trouble getting their inbounds pass from under their basket with 6.3 to play safely into the hands of Paulding, but Paulding's right foot came down on the sideline as he attempted to drive to center court, turning the ball back over to the Horns. With 5.6 left on the clock, Fredie Williams then triggered the inbounds pass to Ford, who was quickly fouled by Rush. T.J. calmly sank both free throws attempts to push the Texas lead back to three at 72-69. During a Texas timeout, Rick Barnes instructed his team to foul Missouri after their inbounds pass in an effort to keep one of the Tigers' three-point bombers from tying up the game. Royal Ivey hacked Clarence Gilbert near midcourt with 3.2 to play, sending the 81-percent free throw shooter to the line for two. Gilbert made the first and intentionally missed the second, but Thomas pulled down his team-leading ninth rebound of the game and quickly threw the ball up court to seal the nailbiting win.

Including his clutch final second free throws, Ford finished with a team-high 18 points (as did Deginald Erskin) and 12 assists, just one assist less than the entire Missouri team. "I wouldn't trade him for anybody in the country," Barnes said postgame. "T.J. told me before that last inbounds that he wanted the ball, that he wanted the game in his hands. He did great with it." Boddicker continued his mini-resurgence, scoring 11 points, hitting four-of-nine from the field, including three-of-seven from beyond the arc. Mouton scored just seven points, but four of those came on smooth, nothin'-but-net jumpers on back-to-back possessions as Missouri made its late run.

Texas built 12-point leads before and after the break. The Horns led 35-23 in the closing minutes of the first and went to the lockerroom up 39-29. Thomas opened the second half with a quick bucket, pushing the advantage again to 12 at 41-29 but eight unanswered points from the Tigers closed the gap to four at the 18:12 mark. Texas, largely due to the passing of Ford and the scoring of Erskin, pulled away again over the next three-and-a-half minutes, taking a 50-39 advantage with just under 15 to play. The Horns' lead hovered around the 10-point mark for the next seven minutes, but after a Ford drive put UT on top 61-50, MU's Paulding with nine points down the stretch and Rush with five got the Tigers back in the game. Neither Paulding nor Rush, who each scored a team-high 16 points, could secure a bucket at the end to win it.

Mizzou's GQ coach Quin Snyder called it a "gut-wrenching loss." You don't have to tell that to the Horns, coach. I assure you, from recent experience, they know gut-wrenching losses.

The exhilarating win, though, moves Texas (17-8 overall) into sole possession of third place in the Big 12 at 8-4, behind only 12-0 Kansas and 9-3 Oklahoma. Missouri drops back into a three-way tie with Oklahoma State and Texas Tech for fourth in the league at 7-5. The Horns get the 20-6 Cowboys in Austin this Wednesday at 7:00. Although Texas must still face OSU, OU, Tech and Iowa State over the next two weeks, Sunday's win greatly enhances UT's chances of earning a top four regular season finish in conference play, which would give Texas an all-important first-round bye at the league tourney in KC.

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