KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Iowa State’s Marquis Gilstrap was the top rebounder in Big 12 Conference play while Damion James of Texas led the Big 12 in boards for the entire season.
In practices leading up to the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Championship, Longhorns coach Rick Barnes made sure to twist the numbers to make his point.
“Every time I’d say Gilstrap was the best rebounder in the conference, I made sure I’d look at Damion,” Barnes said. “During the game, he came over and said, ‘I’m getting’ ‘em all.’ He did what he’s known for.”
That would be scoring and rebounding. James had 28 points and 16 rebounds to lead the sixth-seeded Longhorns to an 82-75 victory over No. 11 Iowa State in the final opening round game Wednesday in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Championship.
Texas (24-8) will play No. 3 seed Baylor at 8:30 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals. After losing 24 in a row to the Longhorns, the Bears are on a three-game winning streak that started in last year’s Big 12 Tournament.
James, obviously, was heavily involved in the game but one play stood out. Texas had failed to put Iowa State away despite leading by eight points on several occasions. And after two free throws by Gilstrap (17 points, eight rebounds), the Cyclones trailed 60-59.
Johnson was double-teamed in the low post but he found James alone at the top of the key. His 3-pointer gave Texas a 63-59 lead with 8:41 remaining. The Cyclones never got closer.
“Before the game, I told my teammates that the seniors are only promised two more games and we’re not ready to go home,” said James, whose 10.2 rebounds per game led the Big 12. “I focused on defense because I’ve let my team down there. I let the rest of the game come to me.”
The Cyclones (15-17) had few answers for the Longhorns’ front line. Barnes started 6-6 junior Gary Johnson at forward. He finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and an eye-catching four assists. Dexter Pittman scored 16 and benefitted from Iowa State doubling Johnson when he posted up.
“We were doubling the post and sometimes we were late rotating on defense,” said Iowa State’s Craig Brackins, who finished with 15, one of five Cyclones in double figures. “The game plan was there and sometimes we didn’t execute it and we paid for it.”
Justin Hamilton, one of Iowa State’s four post players, was limited to 11 minutes because of foul trouble.
“There are some teams in the Big 12 where we could get by with Justin being in foul trouble,” said Cyclones coach Greg McDermott, whose team was out-rebounded 46-34. “Texas is not one of those teams.”
Over the last two months, the Longhorns have put the funk in dysfunctional. In the first half, Texas took a 25-19 lead when James hit a 3-pointer at the 8:35 mark. But over the rest of half, the Longhorns had 13 possessions that produced a paltry six points. Instead of taking control, UT’s offensive woes allowed the Cyclones to pull within 31-28 at halftime.
Barnes, though, said, “There were a lot of good things that happened tonight. Our mind set was good.”
And Texas got unexpected contributions from two players. Junior point guard Jai Lucas played 22 minutes and had three assists with no turnovers. Matt Hill, a 6-10 junior center, played 12 minutes in relief of Pittman, scoring three points with three rebounds. Hill had played a total of 17 minutes in Big 12 games while Lucas had played a total of 23 minutes in the last six games.
In the first game of the opening round, Texas Tech avenged a season-ending loss at Colorado with an 82-67 victory. In the Longhorns’ season finale, Baylor romped in a 92-77 victory that resembled a dunk contest.
“Coach said they had 15 dunks and that’s never happened,” James said. “So we gotta take it personal. And that’s all we’re gonna say about that situation.”