Hoops: Horns break the home jinx

No home heartbreaker this time.

Texas exorcised some home demons Tuesday with its 96-71 stomping of Tech. After falling to Oklahoma and Kansas in OT and losing by five to Okie State in Austin, the Horns finally managed a home win over one of the league's upper echelon teams. And unlike the previous three attempts, this top-half-of-the-standings battle provided little drama for the season-high Erwin Center crowd, even with Bobby Knight occupying (although never throwing) a chair on the visitor's bench.

The Horns led by 13 at the break, pushed that advantage to 21 a little over six minutes into the second half and flirted with a 30-point cushion five minutes later. Tech, which has now lost 11 straight to UT, never made a serious run. And despite all that, Knight kept his cool.

The shooters for both teams, though, stayed hot all night. Texas hit 56.5-percent of its field goal attempts, including a scorching 62.5-percent from beyond the arc. Surprisingly given the final score, the Red Raiders nearly matched UT's shooting success, connecting on 52.9-percent of their shots, including 60-percent of their attempts from downtown. The stat sheet, though, also provides the clue as to why hot-shooting Tech couldn't hang with hot-shooting Texas: the Horns outrebounded the Raiders 39 to 18, which helped UT outscore Tech 25-9 on second chance points and 48-22 in the paint.

"I told Rick (Barnes) that they played harder than we did," Knight said postgame. "The difference in this game was so monumental on their side in terms of going after loose balls and going after balls on the board. Our inside guys got pummeled (within the framework of the game) on the boards."

In particular, James Thomas, who totaled 18 points and eight rebounds (seven offensive), earned Knight's praise. "My favorite player in this whole league might be Thomas," he said. "Thomas does things that people don't see. He hustles and the physical presence he brings to the game is tremendous."

Informed of Knight's "favorite player" comment about Thomas, Barnes said, "He's one of my favorites too. I don't know if people really understand what he's done (since Chris Owens went down). He brings it all the time. He's a special player to coach because of the effort he brings. Since Alaska, he's brought it every day in practice. I think he's gonna get much, much better offensively. And what he does on the boards, he's just got a great passion."

After being outrebounded by the Raiders in Lubbock (and badly by Oklahoma State in Austin), Barnes said he emphasized that phase of the game with his team. The head coach also tweaked the offense, which over several games had devolved largely into the T.J. Ford Show, to "get more guys involved." The Horns went to a motion offense with more cutting and screeening than in the past. Ford, with the scoring burden at least temporarily lifted off his shoulders, made just one bucket but still managed to exceed his per-game assist average.

And for a change, many of the other guys wearing the Orange and White got in on the assist act as well. Brandon Mouton passed for three assists, while Royal Ivey, Fredie Williams and Brian Boddicker each totaled two assists. Overall, seven Horns aside from Ford scratched the assist column, totaling 12 assists to T.J.'s 10.

Mouton led all scorers with 25 points, Sydmill Harris misfired on just two of his seven attempts as he totaled 14 points and Ivey broke out of a mini-slump by knocking down five of his eight shot attempts to score 12. Barnes said Ivey has been "pressing" of late, but "tonight he played the way we need him to play." Andy Ellis paced the Red Raiders with 17 points.

With the win, Texas evened its home record in Big 12 play at 4-4 this season. More importantly, the Horns moved to 9-6 overall in league play. Tuesday's win, coupled with Missouri's upset over Okie State Monday in Columbia, creates a four-team logjam for the No. 3 spot in the league behind KU and OU. Each of the four fighting for third -- UT, OSU, Tech and Mizzou -- have 9-6 Big 12 marks and just a single game left to play. The Horns (18-10) travel to Ames Saturday to take on Iowa State (12-17, 4-11), the Cowboys (22-7) host A&M (9-20, 3-13) and the Raiders (20-7) play Baylor (14-13, 4-10) in Waco on that same day, and the Tigers (20-9) play host to league champ Kansas (25-2, 14-0) on Sunday.

Because Texas owns head-to-head tie-breaker advantages over both Tech and Missouri, a Longhorn win in Ames Saturday will guarantee the Horns at least a tie for third in the conference and either the third or fourth seed (and a first-round bye) in the Big 12 Tourney next week in Kansas City.

"Right now, there is definitely a sense of urgency," Mouton said. "We have to come out and play our hardest. Coach Barnes says we have to play each game as if it's our last, like it's the championship game. Each guy took that as a challenge."

Now, the immediate challenge for Texas is at Iowa State, where a win will mean a 10-6 conference mark, a third-place league finish, a Big 12 tourney bye and perhaps an improved NCAA seed. "I haven't talked a lot about (the bye)," Barnes said. "I've simply told them there's a difference between being 10-6 and being 8-8. There is a difference and if they want to see it simply write it on the blackboard. There's one that looks better than the other."

Particularly given what the one (10-6) could mean.

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