By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
KANSAS CITY, Mo. –
It's not exactly how the committee goes about selecting the 68-team NCAA Tournament bracket. But it worked for Texas.
At halftime Thursday, the Longhorns trailed No. 3 seed Iowa State, 29-25, in a quarterfinal game of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Championship. A defeat for No. 6 seed Texas, according to all those bracketologists, would probably pop UT's bubble.
Texas coach Rick Barnes decided to talk about the elephant in the locker room.
"I told the guys this, 'You know what? Let's just say we are on the bubble," he said. "Let's just say that. All right. Now, if I wrote down NIT or NCAA, which one would you put your name under right now? And I said, So whichever one you want, I can assure you you're going to have to earn it."
Texas (20-12) earned a 71-65 victory over the Cyclones (22-10) thanks to a strong second half. Will it be enough to earn a spot in the bracket that will be announced Sunday? Who knows? But the Longhorns improved their chances.
And several bubble teams bobbled their chances. Washington lost to Oregon State. USF fell to Notre Dame. Mississippi State lost to Georgia. Northwestern lost to Minnesota.
Texas gets at least one more chance to impress the NCAA Tournament committee. The Longhorns will face No. 2 seed Missouri in Saturday's second semifinal at the Sprint Cetner.
Early in the second half, it appeared that Texas' streak of 13 consecutive NCAA appearances would end. Barnes called a timeout 1:39 into the second half. UT trailed 36-25 and at that point had missed 31 of 41 shots.
"I was upset, because I didn't think we came out and did what we needed to do (to start the second half)," he said. "But we fought back. But this team has done this all year."
Suddenly, the Longhorns' shots started falling. They made 11 of their next 14 shots and with 9:33 remaining had a 55-47 lead. The cardinal and gold-clad fans who had turned the Sprint Center into Hilton Coliseum South were stunned.
Iowa State clawed its way back and tied the game at 59-all on two Chris Babb free throws with 4:39 to play. The Longhorns responded with six consecutive points but consecutive field goals by Royce White forged a 65-all tie with 52 seconds remaining.
Texas, which found itself on the NCAA bubble because of too many close losses, appeared headed for another disappointing outcome. But the Longhorns' fate spun in a different direction thanks to a spin move by J'Covan Brown.
The junior guard and Big 12 leading scorer drove the lane, whirled, scored, was fouled and made the free throw with 36 seconds remaining to give Texas the lead for good. Brown was able to shake free of Iowa State's Chris Babb, who had hounded him the entire game.
"That's what great defenders are going to do, make you do your second option," said Brown, who finished with a game-high 23 points. "He gave me a lane, able to drive left. When I took it, he cut me off and I just spun and just tried to go make a play."
Texas will stay in Kansas City for at least one more day. Iowa State heads back to Ames to await its NCAA Tournament fate. Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg had little trouble pointing out what happened.
"I thought the key to the game was a nine-minute stretch in the second half," he said. "We go up 11 right away in the second half. About 18 minutes to go, and you look at the nine-minute mark, and we're down eight.
"I thought we put our heads down a little bit as a team. And then we regrouped and found a way to get back in the game. But they made big plays down the stretch and we didn't."