The Texas backcourt enjoyed one of its most solid outings of the season last Sunday against North Carolina State but combined for just 6-of-26 from the field until Paulino fired the three-bomb from the left wing with less than one second remaining. The senior has been overshadowed throughout his career, especially on this year's squad that boasts four McDonald's All-Americans. Minutes after his game-winner capped one of the more dramatic days in NCAA Tournament history, Paulino sat in the Longhorn locker room and conceded he that he was still a little incredulous.
"I can't believe that I made that shot," he said. "I would expect that from one of the different players on the floor. When it's you, you don't know how to react."
The famous final scene was set up when bloodied and bandaged C Kevin Pittsnogle (courtesy of a LaMarcus Aldridge elbow to the nose) drained a trey to tie the game at 71 with six seconds left. Texas coach Rick Barnes did not call a timeout but previously told his squad to push the ball down the floor if WVU faked the screen.
"We told them that if they score we've got to get it back and run it at them," Barnes said. "We got as good of a look as we could probably get."
It was the second time this season that Texas got past West Virginia with a game-winning shot in the closing seconds. Last November, Aldridge's putback in the final three seconds lifted Texas to a 76-75 win over the Mountaineers at Kansas City in the semifinals of the Guardians Classic. The Horns fought back from a double-digit deficit in that one; on Thursday in the Georgia Dome, it was the Mountaineers that overcame a 12-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 58 with 8:18 left.
"They turned up the intensity on us and I think that, for a moment, we didn't know how to counter it," Aldridge said. "Coach came to the sideline and said we had to turn our intensity up. I think that once we did that that's when it started getting close."
Aldridge led all scorers with 26 points (11-of-15 FG) and 13 rebounds. He connected on all eight of his first half attempts.
The numbers may not look as impressive compared to his counterparts but this was F Mike Williams most complete game as a Longhorn. The sophomore was 4-of-4 from the field for nine points while adding seven boards and one block in 20 minutes of work. With Texas holding an early 26-22 lead, Williams drove the baseline for a jam to keep WVU at arm's length. Then, as Texas closed the first period with a 13-3 run, Williams battled for a loose ball between two Mountaineers and went up strong for the stick-back. Then, when it was a 51-47 ballgame midway through the second period, he chased down a defensive board and converted on the offensive end. We have not seen that from the McDonalds All-American against a quality opponent during his collegiate career.
"I feel real comfortable and I'll just take whatever they give me," Williams told Inside Texas. "Right now, I'm just playing my role on the team. Whatever the other teams gives me, I'll take it."
Two things we knew coming into this one: 1) Texas would dominate on boards; 2) WVU lives and dies by the three-balls. The Mountaineers shot 25-of-55 from the field (45.5 percent) but 33 of those attempts were from outside the arc, hitting 15 of them. Here's a stat you don't see every day: Texas outrebounded WVU, 45-16. That's no misprint. West Virginia had just three offensive boards, almost to be expected of a squad launches so many treys. But F P.J. Tucker had about as many boards (14) as the entire Mountaineer squad. Texas' 17 offensive rebounds led to 22 second-chance points.
"We tried to keep two guys down around the block," Barnes said. "Every now and then we would float somebody into the high post. We felt like if we could take care of the ball, get it on the rim, that we could do some damage there. We ended with 17 of them (offensive rebounds) and that gave us 17 more opportunities."
Overall, the Horns shot 48.3 percent (28-of-58) from the field, but were just 4-of-19 (21.1 percent) from three-point range. The Horns also held a decisive edge at the foul line, hitting 14-of-20 FTs (70 percent) while WVU went to the charity stripe eight times, converting six.
The 'W' gives Texas its first 30-win season in school history. It marks just the third time in school history (1990, 2003) that Texas has won three NCAA Tournament games in the same year.
Three straight WVU treys, including a pair from Pittsnogle, erased an early 6-0 Longhorn lead. Texas went on a 9-3 run, punctuated by a pair of Tucker slams. Senior G Patrick Beilein (son of WVU coach John Beilein) hit his second trey to knot the affair at 15. Aldridge and Abrams jump-started an 8-0 Texas run, as the freshman fed the big guy on an alley-oop lob before a WVU turnover led to his uncontested layup.
The Mountaineers wrapped another trey and four FTs around Gibson's three-ball to trim Texas' lead, 26-22. But, yes!, that was Mike Williams driving the baseline for a slam just before Aldridge followed with his patented turnaround jumper. That made it a 30-22 ballgame. The Burnt Orange would hold WVU to just one FG, another Beilein bucket outside the arc, during a 6:08 stretch in which the Horns finally got some separation with a 13-3 tear. Barnes went with a three-guard lineup during that span, but it was productivity in the low post that saw Texas build a double-digit lead. Aldridge capped the run with another slam to go 8-for-8 from the field during the first period. The Horns took a 39-27 advantage into the locker room.
But, just one minute into the second period, West Virginia got right back into it with a pair of treys and a layup off of Tucker's turnover. The Horns endured a 4:29 drought without a FG to open the final frame as Pittsnogle's layup capped a 12-1 Mountaineer uprising. Paulino's first bucket of the game, a trey, made it a 49-44 contest. Mike Gansey's traditional three-point play cut the Longhorn lead, 53-52. When Pittsnogle buried a trey from the right wing, West Virginia had knotted the affair at 58.
Gibson responded with an airball just before Gansey's NBA-range trey gave WVU its first lead of the second period, 61-58, with 7:22 left. Tucker hit a pair of foul shots just before Aldridge followed with a turnaround jumper to reclaim the Longhorn lead, 63-61. It was a 67-65 nailbiter when Aldridge hit the front end of a one-and-one. Abrams drained a pair of freebies to give Texas a 70-65 lead with 26.9 ticks on the clock but Gansey sank a trey from the parking lot. When Aldridge hit just the back end of a pair of foul shots, WVU had a chance at 71-68 and 13.9 left. Pittsnogle's game-tying trey with six seconds left simply set the stage for one of the most critical plays in program history.
Paulino was just 1-of-6 on three-point shots prior to his buzzer beater. And history wasn't exactly on his side.
"I never hit a game-winner before," Paulino said. "I can remember my junior year when I missed a game-winner at Wake Forest, but I'd never made a game-winner."
Even so, he called for Abrams to dish him the ball with less than three seconds remaining.
"I really haven't thought about the importance (of the shot)," he said. "I'm just living in the moment."
And, because of his shot, Texas lives to see another day.