Horns Survive Aggies, Face Kansas In Final

DALLAS -- Kenton Paulino's three-pointer gave Texas the lead for good with 2:59 remaining as the Horns fought off Texas A&M, 74-70, Saturday in the Semifinals of the Big 12 Conference Tournament. The Horns will meet Kansas in the Championship Game, 2 p.m., Sunday, at the American Airlines Center.

This one wasn't over until F Brad Buckman hit one of two foul shots in the final four seconds. The Aggies had a chance to force overtime, but C Joseph Jones' three-point attempt with 12 seconds left barely drew iron. The call was to give G Acie Law an open look off the double-screen, but Texas coach Rick Barnes threw a different look at the Aggies. He not only switched from a 3-2 zone to man defense but also assigned P.J. Tucker, rather than Daniel Gibson, to Law. (The sharpshooter drained the buzzer-beater over Gibson in College Station on March 1.)

"We wanted to take Acie Law out (and) make sure he didn't take the shot," Tucker said. "We wanted to try to put the ball in somebody else's hands for them to make the play because they look for him to make things happen."

And when the ball ended up in Jones' hands way out in the left wing?

"That's the shot we really wanted," Tucker said.

The Horns are now 27-5 after breaking the school record for most wins in a season.

"I haven't thought about (the record) much," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "When the season is over, I might reflect on it. Right now, we've still got a lot of work to do."

In more ways than one.

While the Horns deserve props for the comeback -- a 13-point halftime lead became a one-point deficit with 3:39 left -- the three games against their in-state rival this season are indicative of a troublesome Achilles Heel that could cause this team to stumble in the Big Dance. In short: C LaMarcus Aldridge can get taken out of his game by bigger, brawnier postmen.

The sophomore was held to five points in both of his regular season matchups against the more physical Jones (6-9, 250). On Saturday, Aldridge was 3-of-10 from the floor for nine points and could only get open for two attempts in the second period as the Longhorn lead evaporated. The flip side is that Texas may not have advanced to Sunday's finals without Aldridge's 11 boards, including five pivotal rebounds on the offensive glass. His putback with 47 seconds remaining -- his only FG following intermission -- was HUGE. That gave his team a 71-68 edge, and the Aggies could only foul after Joseph misfired from three-point range.

It's just that Aldridge will face stronger frontcourts if his team is still dancing in two weeks. Buckman has struggled mightily this weekend, recording just one FG (in seven attempts) in two games. The old adage this time of year is that a team will advance as far as its point guard can take it. For my money, Texas' post-season run will be predicated on the play of its frontcourt (in general) and upon Aldridge (in particular).

Fortunately, Barnes has an enviable arsenal. Tucker played like a man-on-a-mission, notching game-bests with 26 points (9-of-17 FG) and 13 rebounds. He also added four assists, two steals and a block. Nothing less was expected after the Big 12 Player of the Year inexplicably dribbled out the shot clock on Texas' final possession in the March 1 loss at College Station.

"All week everybody has been talking about getting a matchup with A&M just because how we ended the game last time we played them," Tucker said. "Truth be known, it doesn't matter who we play. I don't think we came into this tournament thinking that we just wanted to play A&M because they beat us... Anybody on our team can tell you I am a motivated player every single game. I haven't played in a Big 12 Tournament since my freshman year, so I am motivated here by getting a chance to play. I don't think specific teams motivate me, but just playing basketball does."

Texas shot 45.3 percent (24-of-53 FG) and was 5-of-14 (35.7 percent) from three-point range. A&M was 26-of-58 (44.8 percent) from the floor and 8-of-23 (34.8 percent) from outside the line. The Aggies went to the charity stripe just 12 times, hitting 10 (83.3 percent) while the Horns connected on 21-of-28 foul shots (75 percent). Texas outrebounded A&M, 39-28.

Aggie freshman Josh Carter almost single-handedly kept his team in it, tallying a career-best 25 points (8-of-12 FG, including 6-of-10 from three-point range) and a team-best seven rebounds.

Paulino's trey gave Texas an early 8-2 lead, but the point guard quickly took a seat when whistled for his second personal just 2:57 into the ballgame. Aggie freshman Carter drained consecutive treys, part off an 11-1 run as A&M regained the upper hand at 18-14. Abrams' jumper sparked a 14-2 Longhorn rally, but Tucker was responsible for half of those points with two driving layups and a traditional three-point play. Paulino's trey from the left wing capped the comeback and spotted Texas a 28-20 advantage.

Abram's layup gave Texas its first double-digit lead, 35-25, with 3:56 remaining until intermission. It was part of a 10-1 run that saw Texas jump to a 39-26 lead. Aldridge's slam made it a 41-30 contest while Paulino's layup spotted the Horns a 43-30 margin at the break.

The Aggies opened the second period with a 10-2 run on the strength of consecutive treys from Carter. Tucker's bank shot briefly stopped the bleeding to make it a 47-40 contest. Dominique Kirk's bucket from outside the arc, followed by Joseph Jones' layup, whittled the Texas lead to 50-49.

Gibson drained a trey on the inbounds pass and followed with a traditional three-point play to make it 56-51 Texas. Tucker's lay-in maintained the five-point margin but the Aggies took advantage of Aldridge's back-to-back turnovers. Carter followed his jumper with a buzzer-beating trey and, suddenly, this one was tied with 6:17 remaining. Law's FTs spotted A&M its first lead since the opening bucket, 66-64. But Gibson answered with a trey while Brad Buckman scored his first FG of the Big 12 Tournament with 1:51 on the game clock. Texas clung to a 69-68 with one minute left following Law's layup.

Aldridge's offensive board and putback had A&M looking for the three-ball. Just not from Joseph.

Afterwards, A&M coach Billy Gillespie refused to lobby for a NCAA Tournament bid.

"I'm not a politician," he said. "I haven't been; I won't be. You don't have to be when you play in the Big 12 (and) you finish fourth, you win your first game in the tournament, you play a team that's hopefully going to the Final Four, unless we get put in the same bracket."

Well, maybe a little politicking.

"You know, we had an eight-game winning streak. I don't know if anybody has a longer winning streak."

The Aggies (21-8) had won eight straight, including the buzzer-beating win against Texas 10 days ago and dating back to a 83-70 loss to the Horns in Austin on February 4.

As it is, the Horns live to see another day. Texas will make its third appearance in the Big 12 Tournament Championship but for the first time as the No. 1 seed.

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