For two unranked teams with just one combined win in four conference games, there was a lot on the line for Texas and A&M on Wednesday night at the Erwin Center. The Longhorns desperately needed a win before starting a brutal six-game stretch, while the Aggies were reeling and needed a victory to simply stop the bleeding. Add in the approaching end to the 95-year basketball rivalry between the two schools, and you end up with a number of interesting subplots adding a great deal of gravity to the game.
With all that to play for, the game still turned out to be very ugly. The Longhorns made just two field goals in the first ten minutes of the game, yet managed to hold a lead for much of the first half. Although it wasn’t pretty, a true team effort for the young Horns added up to a key victory over A&M on Wednesday night. Not only did it provide Texas with a crucial league win in a season where the team will be sweating the bubble, but it also ensured that the Longhorns would hold on to their nine-game home winning streak over their in-state rivals as the series goes dormant next year.
The first twenty minutes of basketball were downright difficult to watch. The Aggies successfully slowed the pace of the game, which ended with just 61 possessions. With fewer scoring opportunities, the missed shots were even more noticeable. J’Covan Brown was still gimpy as he recovered from an ankle injury suffered a week earlier, while Myck Kabongo spent more than half the game on the bench with foul trouble. His two early fouls were especially infuriating for Longhorn fans, as they both came right after he had turned the ball over. With a thin bench, the freshman will have to learn not to compound his mistakes by committing frustration fouls.
Without the two facilitators kick-starting the offense, Texas really struggled. A&M hedged hard on ball screens, forcing the limping Brown to try to start sets 30 feet from the rim. While the Texas defense kept things close throughout the first half, a true team effort on offense put the Horns in a position to win. Sheldon McClellan would attack the rim or make a big play, then Julien Lewis would step up a few possessions later. Jonathan Holmes even ripped down a few big rebounds despite only seeing the court for 14 minutes.
The Longhorns also got some big minutes in the second half from their pair of much-maligned big men. Both Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman logged clutch blocks as the Longhorns went on a second-half run, with each swat coming in help situations on the other forward’s man.
Wangmene only played 19 minutes, but had an old-fashioned three-point play that swung the momentum in the second half. Chapman, meanwhile, finished with 11 points, seven boards, and picked up two charges. He knocked down a midrange jumper and had another one pop out after going halfway down. While these two guys are never going to be on the level of the bigs from Kansas or Baylor, Chapman’s strong recent efforts and Wangmene’s flashes of solid play are something to be optimistic about early in the conference slate.
Despite his injury, J’Covan Brown also had an excellent game. He couldn’t blow past defenders thanks to the sore ankle, but he simply played smart basketball. He had his first three shots blocked, but then adjusted his approach and managed to finish with 16 points. Brown used the hesitation dribble to perfection in the second half, probing the defense, waiting for their reaction, and then reading it before attacking again or finding a teammate. On a night where he shot just 16.7% from the field, J’Covan earned ten trips to the line and made every single free throw.
With Brown unable to create good looks for himself, he put his teammates in a position to score. The junior finished with six assists, but easily could have cracked double digits if it weren’t for bobbled passes and the constant fouls down low when he would find someone open. Two of Brown’s most impressive plays came on passes well away from the basket. On the first, he found McClellan for an alley-oop when he was standing closer to half court than the perimeter. The second came as Texas was putting on a second-half surge, when Brown shot a laser pass from the backcourt to find an open Chapman for a dunk in transition.
The Longhorns also finally had another great game from freshman Julien Lewis, who has had a very streaky season. He led the team with 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including a perfect 3-for-3 mark behind the arc. In his five games prior to the A&M one, Lewis was just 22% from the field and 16.7% from the field. To add insult to injury, he also crunched his hand in a car door in the middle of his slump, forcing him to miss the New Year’s Eve game against Rice. If Lewis can stay hot, the Longhorns might surprise someone and pull off an upset during this tough three-week stretch.
The one consistent storyline this season has been the team’s pursuit of a 14th-consecutive NCAA bid. Rick Barnes and the Longhorns have been a March Madness staple, one of only six teams who have made the field in each of the last 13 seasons, but that streak is in jeopardy this year. Texas failed to build a solid résumé in non-conference play, blowing games against Oregon State and N.C. State in New Jersey. A win over UCLA in Los Angeles has lost its luster thanks to the disappointing season for the Bruins, but Texas’ home win over Temple at least gives them one quality victory.
That weak non-conference profile means that Texas will have to make a case by winning games in a tough Big 12. If you consider 20 wins the magic number for NCAA inclusion — and even that is no guarantee — the Longhorns must win 10 games in a Big 12 where every team is competitive, even a rebuilding Texas Tech program. Wednesday night’s win over A&M isn’t going to steal any headlines or punch a ticket to the Big Dance, but in a season where the Longhorns will be counting every single W, it was one they simply had to have.
Up next: at #9/9 Missouri (15-1 overall, 2-1 Big 12); 12 P.M. CT, Saturday