Hoops: Horns tie for third in Big 12

With just under four minutes to play Saturday night in Ames, a third-place league finish for Texas looked unlikely. Trailing Iowa State by eight points, UT's hopes for a bye-clinching Big 12 victory seemed to have slipped away when <B>T.J. Ford</B> slipped early in the second half and aggravated a groin injury originally suffered last weekend in the loss to Oklahoma in Norman, limiting the true freshman point guard to just seven second half minutes and none over the game's decisive stretch.

James Thomas, though, refused to let Texas lose, dominating the final few minutes. The sophomore scored six of his team-high 17 points, cleaned the glass for five of his game-high 13 boards, and turned in a steal for good measure during the Horns' game-closing 14-3 run. Brandon Mouton (13 total points), Fredie Williams (four points) and Brian Boddicker (five points) also hit clutch shots as UT overcame the Cyclone lead.

"The tougher team with the tougher coach won tonight," Iowa State head coach Larry Eustachy said.

Those words and the effort from his team that they reflect had to have pleased Rick Barnes, who recently blasted the effort he saw from the guys in Orange and White in back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.

"I told the guys last night, this morning and right before the game that this was going to be our hardest game all season in terms of effort needed to get a win," Barnes said. The result, particularly given the fact that Ford watched most of the second half from the Longhorn bench, speaks for itself.

Ford, who still finished with seven assists despite his limited playing time, will be evaluated Sunday but his status for the Big 12 Tournament is uncertain.

With the win, Texas finished its Big 12 season tied for third in the league with Oklahoma State and Texas Tech at 10-6. The Horns, with a 3-1 head-to-head mark, own the tie-breaker advantage over the Cowboys (2-2) and Red Raiders (1-3) and will be the No. 3 seed at the Big 12 Tourney in Kansas City later this week.

Texas will face the winner of the Thursday No. 6 vs. No. 11 game between Missouri and Iowa State on Friday at approximately 8:20 p.m. Despite earning a bye and a higher seed than No. 4 Oklahoma State, the Horns have the arguably tougher path to the semis than do the Cowboys. UT must face either the Tigers or the Cyclones, each of which will have a huge fan contingent at Kemper, to advance to a probable date with the Sooners on Saturday. Okie State will get either Tech or No. 12 seed A&M, two basically fan-less teams in KC, before a probable semifinal match with Kansas. Even with the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks, that side of the bracket would have been far more favorable for a possible Longhorn run to the tournament finals.

Regardless of any negative Big 12 tourney title implications, the win over Iowa State, which pushed UT's overall record to 19-10, didn't hurt the Horns' potential NCAA seeding situation. It may not have helped much (the Cyclones are a woeful No. 161 in the latest simulated RPI), but a loss would have been damaging. As it stands now, heading into the conference tourney, Texas is No. 19 in the RPI with a 5-5 record over its last 10 games and is a solid 7-3 on the road. The Horns have three wins over RPI top 25 teams (3-8 overall) and two more vs. teams with RPIs from 26-50 (2-0 overall). UT also has two "bad" losses (to teams ranked 100 or below) to A&M and K-State. All of that, along with their performance in KC and T.J.'s injury status, will factor into the Horns' NCAA seeding.

The bet here is, barring a run to the finals at Kemper, UT is in line for a seven seed. If that run, however improbable (because of the tough quarterfinal match-up and OU's menacing presence in the semis), happens, Texas could possibly climb as high as a five seed. Let the March madness begin.

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