AUSTIN, Texas – “One game at a time” is a sports cliché that is one of those “true facts.” All you can do is play one game at a time.
That being said, though, the next game (and next games) loom before, during and after playing that “one game.”
For No. 19 Texas, the next two games on the schedule involve road trips to play ranked opponents – Tuesday at Iowa State and next Saturday at Kansas. That meant Saturday’s game with West Virginia – arguably the Big 12’s hottest and most-dangerous team – was crucial for the Longhorns.
“If you’re trying to win a Big 12 championship, you’ve got to win at home because it’s so hard to win on the road,” said UT junior Jonathan Holmes, who returned after missing the previous game with a knee injury. “We knew that with what we’ve got ahead of us this week that this game would be very important for us.”
The Longhorns (20-5, 9-3) took care of business with an 88-71 victory over the Mountaineers (15-11, 7-6). Texas remained in second place in the Big 12 standings, a game behind first-place Kansas.
A week ago UT went to Kansas State and got slapped, 74-57. The Longhorns followed that up with two convincing victories, defending their Erwin Center home court with 19- and 17-point margins
The Longhorns shot 57.9 percent and limited the Mountaineers to 39.7 percent. Texas had eight dunks, which hardly neutralized West Virginia’s eight 3-pointers (on 23 attempts) but it illustrated the Longhorns’ ability to get to the rim with impunity. Each team had five players reach double figures but UT’s starting “bigs” outscored WVU’s big men 25-4.
“My teammates were looking for me but I was looking to get myself open, sealing my man off to be able to get the ball,” said 6-9, 285-pound sophomore Cameron Ridley, who had 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting plus three blocked shots. “We’re playing for each other and playing for a Big 12 championship. Everybody has the same goal, to win games. We’re not selfish.”
Texas had 18 assists on its 33 field goals. Demarcus Holland finished with 11 points and seven assists as the Longhorns were able to slice through West Virginia’s man-to-man and 1-3-1 half court trap.
“We did a lot of good things,” Barnes said. “We moved the ball, it was poppin’. When we haven’t played well, the ball sticks in one place.”
Texas displayed its depth while taking control in the first half. With starters Ridley and Holmes on the bench, the Longhorns ripped off a 17-4 run over a five-minute stretch to take a 36-20 lead with 3:06 left before the break. Holland had four points while Javan Felix, who finished with a team-high 18, had eight during the run.
The UT defense limited WVU to 2-of-7 shooting and forced three turnovers during the burst. The Mountaineers closed the deficit to six early in the second half but never threatened to take the lead.
West Virginia’s 11-point halftime deficit was fool’s gold. The Mountaineers scored 10 points on three possessions – three free throws by Harris when fouled shooting a three, a four-point play by Henderson and Nathan Adrian’s 3-pointer. On WVU’s other 28 possessions, it scored 19 points, missing 20 of 27 shots.
“We have to be more resilient during the game,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “We missed some shots and we didn’t respond the way we needed to respond. When things don’t go your way, you don’t stop playing. You play harder.”
Texas smothered, strangled and stymied West Virginia. Junior point guard Juwan Staten, who had averaged 24 points in his last four games, was held to 14 ineffective points to go with seven assists; he didn’t reach double figures until there was less than four minutes remaining. It was lowest scoring effort since notching 14 against Purdue on Dec. 22.
“It was a team effort,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said of his team’s defense. “He’s a terrific open court player. We had to have five guys back there to keep him under control in transition. Thaqt might be the best defense we’ve played all year.”
Staten and UT’s Isaiah Taylor are perhaps the quickest players with the ball in the Big 12. But Taylor along with teammate Javan Felix were effective in staying in front of the WVU point guard; when he did get a lane to the basket, one of UT’s post players came over to force a course correction.
Barnes didn’t sleep well Friday night because of his team’s poor practice but he was encouraged by how engaged his team was during Saturday’s shoot around. Huggins also was confident after his team’s shoot around Saturday. But the fortunes and outcomes can change from practices to games or in a few hours..
“I think we’ve learned to respect each opponent; if you don’t do that in this league, you’re gonna get beat,” Barnes said. “Now we’ve got one game – Iowa State. We’ve got a game Tuesday night and we’ve got to get ready for that one.”