No. 1 Wildcats By A Whisker, 73-70

A few years ago, Texas hoops fans would have been chesty about a 73-70 road loss to the top-ranked Arizona Wildcats. The fact that head coach <B>Rick Barnes </b>said Texas would now be the No. 1 in college basketball if it had finished strong during the final four minutes of its past two ballgames, shows how far the program has come under his watch.

In a down-to-the-wire slugfest that felt more like March Madness than a December tune-up, Texas had the ball right where it wanted it-- in sophomore sensation T.J. Ford's hands with a chance to tie in the closing seconds. When the All-American candidate's 3-point attempt was just off the mark, it meant Arizona had barely passed what head coach Lute Olson said was his team's toughest test of the season.

Texas fell to 5-2 while the 'Cats upped their record to 5-0.

With 6-8 senior F Luke Walton sidelined with an injured right ankle (yep, this is former UCLA superstar Bill Walton's kid), Arizona had to rely on one of its other All-Americans (namely senior point guard Jason Gardner and his 15 ppg average) to carry the ‘Cats.

Yet Gardner connected on just 1-of-6 first-half FGs as Texas jumped to a 4-0 lead at the 17:36 mark following a Ford lay-up and a James Thomas bank shot. The Wildcats would answer with a 5-0 run, but could stretch their home-court lead to no more than seven at any point during the contest. G Salim Stoudamire would hit a pair of 3-pointers as the ‘Cats led 16-11 with 14 minutes remaining. (The sophomore led his team with 14 points and hit 4-of-8 from three-point range).

Unlike previous years, Texas had the depth to hang tough, particularly on the defensive end, with the seasoned Wildcats. The home team opened the game by draining six of their first 10 FG attempts, but connected on just 5-of-19 from the field for the remainder of the first half. Arizona had been averaging 97 ppg entering the contest.

Texas' tenacious defense mitigated Arizona's transition game as the Horns regained the lead with a Jason Klotz bucket, 23-22, with 7:09 until intermission. Again, the Wildcats would reel off five answered points, taking a 29-26 lead and bringing the sold-out McKale Center crowd to its feet as the locals anticipated pulling away from the hardnosed Longhorns.

But with 3:10 left, G Will Bynum fouled G Sydmill Harris just as he connected on an NBA-range, three-point shot. When Harris' free throw completed the four-point play, Texas suddenly held a 30-29 advantage. So far this young season, Klotz has been Texas' sixth man and continued his clutch performances off the bench by adding a pair of free throws plus a lay-in following a nifty dish from Ford to make it 34-32, Texas with little more than two minutes until halftime.

A pair of Dennis Latimore knotted the affair, 34-34, at halftime.

Arizona would rebuild its 7-point lead, 47-40, after both F Brad Buckman and G Brandon Mouton both picked up their third personals with little more than two minutes gone in the second half. But Texas absolutely refused to ride off into the Arizona sunset and would answer with a 10-0 run, beginning with Harris' 3-point FG with 15:35 remaining.

In a physical game (it was a Big 12 officiating crew) that saw 12 lead changes, Thomas tied the game at 65 with 3:26 remaining. The junior, AKA "Mister Double-double," led all scorers with 20 points and registered 13 boards. But after struggling early, Gardner took over when the outcome was on the line.

Gardner would respond with six of his team's final eight points, beginning with a pair of 15-foot jumpers that would give Arizona the lead for good at the 2:03 mark. He also drew a critical charge against Ford in the final 90 seconds. (As dazzling as Ford is, it is the second time in as many weeks that T.J. turned the ball over in the final minute with game on the line.)

Junior F Brian Boddicker nailed a 3-pointer to make it 72-70 with 14 seconds remaining. Gardner connected on just one-of-two FTs, leaving Texas a chance to send the game into overtime, trailing by three and with the final shot. After Ford's attempt fell short, the 'Cats' may have remitted one of their nine lives this season while Texas came the closest it has ever come in five attempts at springing the upset against a top-ranked squad.

Texas shot 36 percent while Arizona was 39 percent from the filed (45 percent in the second half). The Wildcats controlled the boards, 46-41.

Freshman F Brad Buckman earned his first start of the season, playing at the opening tip instead of senior Deginald Erskin. Erskin was Texas' surprise leading-scoring during post-season play last year and contributed a team-high 25 points in Texas' win over Seton Hall. Hampered by a shoulder injury, the senior was held to one point against George Washington and eight points by Notre Dame last weekend.

After opening with five-of-seven road games, Texas returns to the Erwin Center for a five-game home stand starting with Thursday's 7 p.m. tip-off against McNeese State. The Horns open Big 12 play at home against Iowa State, January 11.

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