Texas (15-5, 5-1 Big 12) trailed 42-36 to Baylor (11-9, 1-6 Big 12) at the break and Kevin Durant, limited by Baylor to outside shots, had only 8 points. Then, as if a switch was flipped by at halftime by head coach Rick Barnes and the struggling Longhorns, the momentum took a sudden shift.
"Kevin was definitely my target at halftime," said Barnes. "I didn't hesitate and went right up to him and said, ‘You're the one guy that keeps settling for threes. You need to get to the line.'"
And get to the line Durant did. On the first possession of the second half, Durant worked his way inside and got his tough lay-up to fall with the foul. After only getting 8 points in the first, Durant finished with an amazing 34.
"At halftime they (coaches) told me I needed not to settle for too many jump shots and go to the basket," said Durant.
Not only did Durant attack the basket and get to the line, but he also made the shots when he got there, hitting 13 of his 15 foul shots. But Durant wasn't the only Longhorn affected by Barnes' call to action.
"At halftime coach got us fired up, he told us to come out and play with heart and we showed what kind of team we can be," said sophomore guard A.J. Abrams, who finished behind Durant with 22 points on seven buckets, six of them three-pointers.
In the first half, most of the Longhorns' problems were under the basket. Freshman forward Matt Hill didn't dress for the game, straining Texas' already thin front court. It was obvious that defending the post against the 7-0, 255-pound Mamadou Diene would be difficult for the Horns and it showed on the stat sheet. At one point early in the contest, the Bears were outrebounding the Longhorns, 9-1.
But with 14:13 left in the first half, while fighting with Justin Mason for a rebound, Diene went down to the ground hard and stayed down for a while before limping off the court unassisted, but obviously affected. As they have been many times this season, the Bears were once again without their imposing post presence.
"Normally he's out with an injury. I feel so bad for him because he hasn't been healthy all year," said Baylor head coach Scott Drew. Diene did not return to the game.
The Horns finally took the lead midway through the first half on a Durant jumper, 20-18. The game remained tight and knotted up at 25 with five and a half minutes to go in the first half. But Baylor took a 30-25 lead on a jumper from Curtis Jerrells and a three-pointer from Tweety Carter.
However, the biggest scoring for the Bears came from Baylor guard Aaron Bruce. Bruce finished with 25 points and hit 5-of-8 three-point attempts. Each time Texas would start to work their way back in the first half, Bruce knocked down a key three-pointer to wrestle momentum back.
"My teammates did a great job of finding me and moving the ball and the bigs did a great job of setting screens so I could get open," said Bruce.
Texas did manage to grab some momentum going into half time with forward Damion James' dunk over Bruce as time expired, but Texas still trailed 42-36.
Barnes praised Durant's second half play, but didn't mince words when it came to the freshman sensation's lack of production in the first half.
"It's his fault, point blank, that's his fault," said Barnes. "He wasn't screening. You can't stand around and wait for the ball to get to you."
Durant clearly got the message at halftime and immediately attacked, but he says he couldn't do it alone.
"It's all credit to my teammates. They got me the ball and let me score," said Durant.
The main guy responsible for getting Durant the ball was D.J. Augustin and Augustin did not disappoint. The freshman point guard finished with 11 assists, compared to only a single turnover.
With 12:00 to go, Texas tied it up at 54 on a three-pointer from Kevin Durant. The freshman forward had 12 points in the first eight minutes of the second half to bring the game back even.
The game was delayed at this point because the shot clocks went out in the Erwin Center for the second time this season. After the ERC staff was unable to restore the clocks, Erwin Center public address announcer Stan Kelly had to continually call out the time remaining on the shot clock for the remainder of the game.
Bruce gave the Bears a six point lead coming out of the delay as he knocked down a pair of three-pointers to the backdrop of "30 seconds to shoot…25…20…"
"Aaron Bruce is a real hard guy to defend because he is in constant motion," said Barnes. "Our guards were working really hard."
With 9:35 to go, Durant ended the Texas drought with another three.
Suddenly, a timeout was called and Durant ran to the bench haphazardly, but not due to injury. The 6-9 forward blew out one of his shoes and had to throw on center Dexter Pittman's shoes so that he could jump back in the game. Durant brought it within one on a pair of free throws while wearing Pittman's size 19s. Connor Atchley replaced Durant in the line-up so that the new pair could be put on.
"It was like one of those NASCAR pit stops," said Barnes. "We got ‘em on and off real quick."
Atchley's entrance ended up becoming a blessing for the Horns. The sophomore forward came in and gave Texas a 63-62 lead with a jumper and Atchley then boxed out Baylor's Josh Lomars to get a key rebound, which allowed Texas set Abrams up for another three.
"I don't think I really did anything different," said Atchley. "It was just being more consistent."
Atchley got the ball in the low post and scored another basket, then put in a pair of free throws as he came off the bench to score 9 points for Texas in the closing minutes of the game. Atchley's free throws gave Texas a 70-62 lead. It was the strongest stretch the Longhorns have gotten all year from Atchley and Barnes agreed with the post player's sentiment about playing more consistent.
"As a coach, what you're always looking for is consistency and he did that tonight," said Barnes.
Baylor refused to stop, though. The Bears came back within four, 74-70, but with the shot clock about to run out (at least according to the PA announcer), Abrams jumped off of one foot and drained a three to give Texas the seven-point lead.
The separation wasn't enough to guarantee the win for the Longhorns, though, as a long final minute awaited them.
Take the shot, foul, take the shot, foul, take the shot, foul. The Bears clawed their way back into the game over the course of the final minute. At this point there were 13 seconds left, Texas was up 80-77 and had the ball. Durant was fouled by Richard Hurd, sending the freshman to the line. Durant hit of his free throws, but Jerrells hit a long jumper (initially scored a three before being corrected after a review) to pull the Bears within three with 7.2 seconds left.
Durant was once again fouled by Baylor and sent back to the line and he once again hit both his shots. Jerrells' last second three bounced harmlessly of the front-iron to give Texas the 84-79 win. Texas gave a consistent, tough effort in the second half and Barnes hopes his team is finally understands how to win basketball games.
"I think what we're learning, I hope, is that you can't let down. You've got to play it out," said Barnes.
The Longhorns next travel to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech on Wednesday, Jan. 31. Tip will be at 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN 2.