"I think we're all very hungry," Justin Mason said post-game. "The year of experience we went through last year, we're all aware of what we're fighting for this year. I think it is our maturity and us growing up over the course of the season makes us play harder. We know what's out there every night for us."
But the first tournament victory in Kansas City did not come easy. For this season, at least, it was a typical tight, low-scoring Texas-Oklahoma State contest. The Horns earned a two-point win in Stillwater early in the conference season and a five-point win in Austin five days ago.
After a see-saw first half which saw OSU take a 33-32 lead on a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer, the Horns got some breathing room in the opening minutes after the break. D.J. Augustin, who led all scorers with 24, knocked down a three on UT's opening possession of the half, kicking off a 14-0 run that gave Texas a relatively comfortable margin that it would keep till the game's final minutes.
The Cowboys made it interesting on back-to-back-to-back three pointers that cut a 12-point Longhorn lead to just three with 3:40 to play, but inside buckets by James, who turned in his third double-double this season vs. the Cowboys with 23 points and 11 boards, and Mason pushed the lead back to seven at 62-55 and Oklahoma State could get no closer than five from there out.
"We knew coming in it was going to be a really hard-fought game," Texas head coach Rick Barnes said. "We had two of them with them throughout the regular season and really a hard one just a couple days ago. It is almost like you feel like you are in 2-3, 3-5 series. But I thought we did some good things, some of the things that we didn't do so well last week, I thought we improved on. Had different guys do some different things."
Mason, in particular, turned in what may have been his best performance as a Longhorn distributing the ball, totaling eight assists versus just two turnovers. And while Connor Atchley struggled with his shot, making just two of nine attempts from the floor and air-balling a free throw, he blocked four shots and grabbed seven boards to go along with his five points.
Texas won this one despite A.J. Abrams' oh-fer three point shooting day. Abrams went 0-5 from the arc and finished with six points, 10 below his season average.
Gary Johnson played just two minutes mid-way through the first half, scoring on consecutive possessions before coming down awkwardly on his right leg and leaving the game for good. His status for Saturday's game is unknown.
Texas jumped out to a 9-3 lead on a James trey, but the Cowboys went on a 10-0 run capped by Ibrahima Thomas' top of the key three. The Horns pushed back to a five-point lead before OSU tied it up at 23, when Texas reeled off seven unanswered, all from Augustin. But the Cowboys keep fighting back, going on their own seven-point run, to tie it up again, this time at 30. After Augustin's transition lay-up with 10 seconds to play in the half, Oklahoma State's Terrel Harris knocked down a three at the buzzer to send the Cowboys into the lockerroom with a 33-32 lead that the Horns quickly overcame in the second half.