Hoops: T.J. takes over in first round win

DALLAS -- For the Horns, the difference between a first-round exit and at least a full weekend stay in the NCAA Tournament can be summed up in just two letters. T and J.

Texas freshman T.J. Ford cleared room on his shoulders for a full team of Longhorns Friday night and carried them to a 70-57 victory at the American Airlines Center in Big D. In the second half, the Boston College D simply could not contain Ford, who figured in on 20 of the Horns' 24 second half points, scoring 16 and setting up Deginald Erskin for four more over the closing 20 minutes. For the game, the fabulous freshman totaled 20 points and seven assists.

Despite the veteran-like second half performance, Rick Barnes said T.J., for one of the few times all season, actually played like a true freshman early in the game. "I think he was little jittery, a little jumpy," the Texas head coach said post-game. "He hasn't done that many times."

The Horns, after trailing early, actually made their first run of the game with the "jittery" Ford on the bench. With T.J. on the sideline and Fredie Williams running the point, Texas turned a three-point deficit into a nine-point lead at about the mid-way point of the first half.

"I thought Fredie Williams did a terrific job coming in and really getting us going," said Barnes. "As you would expect, I thought we were a little jumpy at the start of the game but Fredie came in and really set the tone for us."

Ford certainly supported the Longhorn effort in the first 20 minutes, dishing five assists and scoring four points as the Horns built a 22-point first-half lead, but he didn't take on the starring role, occupied by Williams, Erskin and Brandon Mouton in the first half, until after the break.

Texas took the floor in the second half with a 19-point advantage, but Troy Bell quickly got BC back in the game. The junior guard poured in 11 points over the first seven minutes after the break as the Eagles outscored Texas 18-4 to pull within five at 50-45. Ford, though, finally provided the offensive spark that stemmed the BC tide before it swamped UT's opening round effort.

"I knew we needed a basket," Ford said of his take-charge second half. "I had to do something for my teammates and I know they have a lot of confidence in me so I just did what I've been doing all year. I just attacked the defense."

The Texas point guard's attacking offensive play almost single-handedly saved the Horns from a humiliating collapse. He scored nine of UT's first 10 points of the second half and helped push the Longhorn lead back to 10 at 57-47 with a set-up pass to Erskin and then five straight points. Williams followed T.J.'s outburst with a floater that extended the advantage to 12 before BC again made a mini run.

Bell converted back-to-back buckets to pull the Eagles back to within eight at 61-53. Ford, though, again found Erskin with a perfectly placed alley oop that the junior slammed home. Bell's heroics continued for one more possession with a basket in transition to make it 63-55 but the BC guard simply couldn't match his freshman counterpart down the stretch, charging into Ford for a foul and possession change and then missing a long three-pointer over the game's final three-and-a-half minutes. Over that stretch, the Horns kept the ball in Ford's hands, and he responded by knocking down seven of his nine free throw attempts to lock up the Texas win.

"When they did get back in and make a run, I thought T.J. made some terrific plays with the basketball," Barnes said.

Both of Ford's second half assists went to Erskin, who scored four points after the break and finished with 16 overall on eight-of-12 shooting. The junior forward scored the first two buckets of the game for the Horns, the second of which put Texas on top 4-2 before BC bolted in front with a 7-0 run. After the teams traded baskets to make the score 11-8 Eagles, UT dominated the remainder of the half, outscoring Boston College 38-16, a stretch that included 12-0 and 9-0 Texas runs. At one point, the Horns held a 21-point edge before heading to half up 46-27. During the first 20 minutes, Texas torched the nets, hitting 58.1-percent from the floor, including 60-percent (three-of-five) from beyond the arc. The Horns also earned a solid 22-14 rebounding edge over the Eagles. Eight Longhorns scratched the score column in the half, led by Erskin, Mouton (nine points) and James Thomas (eight points).

Texas employed an unusual defensive approach in its attempt to shut down BC's outstanding guard Bell. Royal Ivey started the game in man coverage on Bell before Williams, all 5-10 of him, took over and harassed the 6-1, All-Big East selection from half court in. Bell finished the first half with 10 points but he missed six of his 10 field goal attempts, including two of his three from long range. He also turned the ball over twice. Bell exploded in the second half for 17 points.

Despite Bell's outstanding second half numbers, Williams' first half and late second half defensive effort combined with Mouton's game-long shutdown D on Bell's backcourt mate Ryan Sidney kept the Eagles from overcoming the Horns. "When their guards get 40 points, they win," Barnes said. "When they don't, they don't. They're built around guard play and we talked about (Sidney being) just as important as Troy Bell." Sidney went zero-for-nine from the field and did not score a point in the game.

For the Horns, Mouton scored nine points and grabbed six boards in the first half but he was shut out in both categories after the break. Thomas totaled eight points (also all in the first half) and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds. After its blistering start, Texas cooled substantially in the second half, making just seven-of-21 field goal attempts, including none in five attempts from downtown. For the game, UT shot 48.1-percent from the floor, including 30-percent from the arc. The Horns ended up with a 43-29 rebounding edge.

Six-seed Texas (21-11) will take on three-seed Mississippi State (27-7), a 70-58 winner over McNeese State in its tourney opener, on Sunday at 1:15 for the opportunity to advance to the Midwest Regional semis in Madison next weekend.

Barnes said the Horns' focus during the week was squarely on Boston College, but he did offer this about the Bulldogs: "What I know is they won the tournament championship in one of the toughest leagues in the country and they are playing great basketball right now. You could make a case that they are playing as good as any team in the country."

[Editor's note: We'll have a Mississippi State scouting report in our next update.]

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