Perfect At Home: No. 4 Texas Downs KSU, 74-60

Junior C <B>James Thomas </b>scored a game-high 22 points (8-of-13 FG) and grabbed 15 boards to lift fourth-ranked Texas to a ho-hum 74-60 decision over Kansas State at the Erwin Center Tuesday. For the rest of the team (21-5, 12-3 in Big 12), it was a methodical yet unspectacular send-off to three seniors (<B>Deginald Erskin</b>, <B>Chris Ogden</b>, <B>Terrell Ross</b>) and to a perfect 15-0 home record.

And, no, it was not sophomore point guard T.J. Ford's last game, either. The All-American reiterated a promise made earlier this season that he would return for at least one more year, saying that he was "110 percent" certain he would stick around for his junior campaign.

Texas shot 53.1 percent (17-of-32) from the field in the first half but chilled out considerably after intermission, hitting just 9-of-25 (25.7 percent) to finish at 38.8 percent. The Horns were 4-of-7 from beyond the arc before the break but 2-of-10 from three-point land in the second half.

The Wildcats (12-16, 3-12 in league play) connected on 27-of-58 (46.6 percent) from the floor but could not overcome Texas' rebounding edge (50-30) and dominance (relatively speaking) at the charity stripe. Texas made more FTs than KSU even attempted. The Horns were 16-of-24 (66.7 percent) from the line while the visitors were true on just three-of-nine (33.3 percent).

The Horns continue to struggle against teams that pack the middle with a sagging zone defense to mitigate dribble-penetration from Texas' explosive guards.

"The purpose of the zone is make you settle for jumpers," explained Professor T. J. Ford, following an 11-point (3-of-10), eight-assist night. "That's what we were doing at one point."

Well, at more than one point, actually. Texas may have been fatigued, having played three games in six days. Or, they may have been as disinterested as the Erwin Center audience that was one-third empty despite the fact that it was the final home game for the highest-ranked team in UT history, a team that should finish no worse than a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tourney.

Still, it was Texas' first unblemished home season since 1995-96 and first ever in Big 12 play.

"It feels good," said Thomas, who is the league's Chairman of the Boards by averaging nearly 12 rebounds per game. "You've got to be able to defend your home turf because you know the road games are going to be so tough."

Meanwhile, the new, improved Brad Buckman (head coach Rick Barnes basically told the forward it was time to quit being a freshman last week) set the tone early by supplying a lay-up, a dunk, a defensive board and two blocks in the first three minutes as Texas opened with an 8-0 run. (Buckman had 14 points and a game-high nine rebounds along with one block in 17 minutes during Saturday's win at Texas Tech.)

Not once, not twice, but four times did Texas match its largest lead at 17 points during the first 20 minutes. But after Thomas' lay-up gave Texas a 30-13 lead with 8:34 remaining, the Horns would manage but two FGs in the next eight minutes. Junior G Jarrett Hart's 3-pointer cut Texas' lead to 37-30 with 48 seconds remaining.

Junior G Brandon Mouton's trey at the buzzer gave Texas a 42-30 halftime lead. Thomas continued to pace the Horns, scoring the first seven points of the second half for his team that played just well enough to fend off the scrappy Wildcats.

A pair of Ford FTs gave Texas another 17-point advantage at 57-40 with 11:37 remaining, but Gilson DeJesus' trey brought KSU to within 57-47 little more than two minutes later. From there, Texas kept the Wildcats at arm's length to hand them their sixth straight loss.

All three Texas seniors were on the floor during the final two minutes and then exited, one by one, to standing ovations. Their final home game allowed Barnes to reflect on a program that, at 111 wins, is now one victory shy of being the winningest Texas program in a five-year period.

"When I recruited them, I sold them on the dream that we're living right now, that Texas would be one of the top teams in the country," Barnes said.

Whether Texas will be the top team in the Big 12 will be determined in a matter of days. Texas travels to No. 5 Oklahoma for a nationally televised (2:30 p.m., ABC-Sports) tilt next Saturday. Should league-leading Kansas stumble at Missouri Sunday (the Tigers are undefeated at home), the winner of the Texas-OU game will clinch a share of the Big 12 title.

For seeding purposes in the Big 12 Tournament (March 13-16 in Dallas), Kansas holds the tie-breaker over Texas while OU holds the tie-breaker over KU. At worse, Texas will be a No. 3 seed in the conference tourney and will receive a first-round bye.

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