Texas (28-6) advances to the Second Round of the Atlanta Bracket and will meet seventh seed North Carolina State at 3:45 p.m. Sunday. The Wolf Pack got past California, 58-52, in the earlier game at the American Airlines Center.
It was a game where Texas never held a double-digit lead. Following two days of buzzer-beating upsets and near misses, the eight-point margin over the Ivy League champion almost qualifies as a rout. Barnes told his team to be prepared for a two-possession game down the stretch and bristled during post-game interviews when a reported asked if he felt more relieved than disappointed following the close call.
"I don't know what you guys expect," Barnes said. "This is the NCAA Tournament. If you guys think we're going to blow teams out, then you don't have a feel for what we're doing. Are you kidding me? I'm glad we're getting a chance to play one more time. Let's give Penn credit. It was what I expected."
The turning point in this one may have been when Daniel Gibson, playing with four fouls, tallied consecutive layups to make it a 45-40 game with 4:38 remaining. Until then, the Longhorn guards had been a virtual non-factor, both offensively and defensively. The sophomore believes that his brief respite on the bench gave him a new outlook on what had been a sluggish game, offensively.
"I picked up fouls that weren't smart," Gibson said. "A lot of those were cheap fouls. When I was on bench, I could watch the flow. Once I got back in the game, I was looking to where I could pick my spots and where I can take some opportunities."
The old adage is that the toughest NCAA Tournament game is always the first one. Texas came out "gun-shy," Barnes said, and quickly learned it was going to be tough sledding in the paint.
"We weren't getting a lot of movement," Gibson said. "A lot of things were stagnated. They did a great job of packing the middle and stopping a lot of the drives inside. Once we got it moving, it was a lot easier for us to get baskets."
Relatively speaking. Texas hit all of nine FGs in the first period and hit nine FGs in the second. The Horns shot 40 percent (18-of-45) from the floor and were just 2-of-10 from three-point range. But Texas stepped up the defensive intensity following intermission, creating offense off of defense and limiting Penn to 32.1 percent (17-of-53) from the field. The Quakers took 27 shots from three-point range, hitting 10 (37 percent).
"Our defense was good," Barnes said. "Any time a team shoots 32 percent against you, you feel pretty good about it."
It was a ragged start for both squads. Texas held a 9-8 lead halfway through the first period with all four FGs courtesy of Aldridge. He would lead all scorers with 19 points (7-of-13 FG) and added 10 rebounds.
Turnovers (eight of them in the first period), missed layups, not to mention an airball from A.J. Abrams, caught up with the Horns as Penn took a 14-13 lead on consecutive treys. Brad Buckman couldn't buy a bucket around the rim in the early going. He finally got on the scoreboard at the 4:43 mark with a shot outside the arc. Junior F P.J. Tucker was the game's second-leading scorer with 17 points (6-of-12 FG) with a game-best 12 rebounds. The Horns outrebounded the undersized Quakers, 42-21.
Junior F Mark Zoller's third trey gave the underdogs a 22-20 lead with less than one minute left. The Quakers took a 23-22 lead into the lockerroom, much to the delight of the hundreds of Arkansas fans who stayed up late to hate on Texas. Then again, the Horns gave the home crowd little to cheer about. All three Texas guards were shut out during the opening frame, going 0-of-6 from the field. Aldridge disappeared from the offense during the final 11:29. Save for the second half at Texas A&M, this was the most excruciating 20 minutes of Longhorn hoops this season.
"The first half, we were just dribbling, dribbling, dribbling and not doing anything with it," Barnes said.
At halftime, Barnes told his team that it didn't look like they were having fun.
"We came out with a lot more energy and just played basketball," Gibson said.
Gibson's trey launched a 9-2 Texas run to open the final frame but the sophomore was whistled for his fourth personal with 14 minutes left. Consecutive Aldridge chip shots spotted the Horns a 38-31 advantage at the 10-minute mark but his team would be held to one FG during the next 4:46 Sophomore G Brian Grandieri's layup trimmed the Longhorn lead, 41-40, with 6:38 left. Gibson answered with back-to-back layups to make it a 45-40 contest.
"The coaches told me to go out there and be smart," Gibson said. "I thought those drives were smart drives. I was under control and my teammates put me in a good position."
Tucker went strong to the hole to give Texas its largest lead of the game, 51-42, but Zoller's trey made it a two-possession game with 1:22 left. From that point, Penn sent Texas to the foul line where the Horns hit 8-of-9 freebies to put this one on ice.
One month ago, who would have predicted that the only Big 12 teams still dancing in the Second Round would be the Longhorns and the Aggies? That's why they still call it 'madness.'