Hoops: Horns slide into the Sweet 16

DALLAS -- What'd ya expect, a blowout?

After almost running Mississippi State out of the building in the first half, the Horns withstood a furious Bulldog rally over the game's final six minutes to pull out a 68-64, Sweet 16-clinching win in Dallas on Sunday afternoon.

Royal Ivey calmly knocked down four straight free throws in the game's closing seconds to ensure the UT win.

"When I walked to the line, I was calm," the Longhorn sophomore shooting guard said. "I was surprised because usually I'm a jittery person."

"My father told me Id' be in a situation like this one day in my life and today I was in that situation," Ivey added. "I was thinking, I've got to knock down the free throws, and that's what I did."

Texas knocked down just about everything in the first half, hitting 66.7-percent from both the field and the arc and a cool 100-percent from the line before struggling to find the bottom of the n et over the game's final 20 minutes. Mississippi State shot a respectable 45.5-percent before the break and turned it on a bit in the second half, hitting half of its attempts from the floor.

The Bulldogs hit several big shots down the stretch as they chipped away at the Texas lead, finally pulling within two at 61-59 with just over two minutes to play on a Mario Austin baseline move where the MSU big man barreled over James Thomas for the bucket. Deginald Erskin, though, answered with an inside basket of his own, plus a free throw following the Austin foul -- amazingly, his first of the game -- for his game-high 17th point. An Ontario Harper three-pointer on Mississippi State's next possession pulled the Bulldogs back to down only two with under a minute to play, setting up Ivey's free throw shooting heroics.

"It's a great feeling for this team to get there," Ivey said of the Horns' trip to the Midwest Regional semis in Madison. "Without (Chris Owens), people wrote us off."

Obviously, they shouldn't have.

Texas, with significant contributions from nine players, held off one of the hottest teams in the tourney largely due to another outstanding defensive effort, this time on MSU's powerful post man Austin. The Bulldogs leading scorer managed 12 points for the game, over four points below his season average. As the Horns built their impressive first half lead, Austin scored just four points and managed one lone board.

"It was a team effort on Mario tonight," Erskin said. "Coach talked earlier that we would have to have a team effort to stop Mario and make their guards beat us and that's what we did tonight." MSU's big three guards -- Derrick Zimmerman, Marckell Patterson and Timmy Bowers -- combined for 27 points, five points below average, on 11-of-25 shooting.

In a near-carbon copy of the UT's tourney opener, Texas bolted in front, opening up a 23-point lead at 34-11 with just under seven minutes to play in the first half before Mississippi State closed to within 12 at 41-29 going into the break.

During that opening run, Ford scored nine points, Erskin eight and Harris six on two long range bombs. The Bulldogs, though, turned up the defensive pressure for the final six-plus minutes before the break, forcing three turnovers, including on consecutive possessions which led to five Mississippi State points, over UT's final 11 touches. The striped shirts also gave the guys in maroon the benefit of the whistle, calling four fouls on the Horns, two away from the ball on the offensive end and another on Erskin which should have gone the other way, if at all, during MSU's 18-7 half-closing stretch.

Austin scored the first basket of the second half for the Bulldogs and Mississippi State pulled within eight in a Michael Gholar three two possessions later. Texas pushed its lead back to 15 at 55-40 on back-to-back Brian Boddicker three pointers and a Erskin bucket underneath on an assist from Boddicker off of a faked trey. The teams essentially traded scores to make the score 60-46 exactly halfway through the second half before the Bulldogs made their final run.

Texas did not score a point from the 10-minute mark till a Thomas free throw with 2:29 to play. During that span, MSU poured in 11 straight points to set up the nail biting finish.

Erskin paced the Horns with 17 points, Ford scored all 11 of his points in the first half, Boddicker buried all three of this long range attempts to score 11 and Ivey added 10. Boddicker, who struggled through what can generously be described as a sophomore slump for the majority of the season, said post-game that he wouldn't trade the three threes he nailed Sunday for all those misses.

Thomas, saddled with foul trouble much of the game from his defensive efforts on Austin, scored eight in limited action while Sydmill Harris totaled six points and Brandon Mouton added five. Fredie Williams and Jason Klotz did not score but contributed nonetheless, particularly with defense and rebounding.

"Give Rick Barnes and Texas a lot of credit," Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said. "They have a great basketball team. They're very good defensively, and early on, they were awfully good offensively. They're a team with a lot of weapons, but I think the best thing is that they defend and rebound so well. They'll be tough to beat down the road."

With the win over three-seed MSU, Texas (22-11) will get an opportunity to play (and possibly beat) two-seed Oregon in Madison on Friday. The Ducks, winners of the Pac-10, are 25-8 on the season after post-season wins over Montana (81-62) and Wake Forest (92-87) in the Sacramento subregional.

"It's a good feeling to reach the Sweet 16 but we're not satisfied," Ivey said in the Texas lockerroom. "We can't be content. We can't look at it like, We're in the Sweet 16 so now we're satisfied."

Apparently, according to Ivey, this team has unfinished business.

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