For the first time in more than a month, the Texas Longhorns have a winning streak.
While two wins in a row is not a whole lot to crow about, Wednesday night’s 69-59 victory over the Oklahoma State Cowboys is a huge step in the right direction for a team that had lost six out of its last ten. The win pushes the Longhorns to 8-6 in league play, and into a three-way tie for fourth with Baylor and Texas A&M, two teams they will face — on the road — in their last three games.
Things didn’t start off beautifully for Texas, as Oklahoma State shot nearly 50% from the field for a majority of the first half, including a 6-of-12 mark from behind the arc. The Longhorns did force eight turnovers in the first half, but the flurry of long-range scoring for the Pokes ensured that Texas could find no breathing room in the first twenty minutes.
James Anderson also couldn’t find much breathing room for those first twenty minutes, as Justin Mason and solid help defense limited the Big 12 Player of the Year candidate to just six first half points. Five of those came in the first three minutes, but Anderson was held scoreless from the field for more than 24 minutes after that.
In the second half, it was the entire Oklahoma State offense that couldn’t breathe. The Pokes were limited to 2-of-10 shooting from behind the arc, and shot just 33% from the field. Anderson was able to add another eight points to his total, but OSU managed just 24 total points in the final twenty minutes. The Texas defense took all of its little lapses from the first half and completely eliminated them in the second.
Beyond the defense, the biggest storyline of the night came from the biggest player on the court. Against a much smaller Oklahoma State lineup, Dexter Pittman finally turned in the performance fans have been waiting for since Fayetteville. After Texas mustered only six points in the paint during the first half, the start of the second half was all about Pittman. The Longhorns made a concerted effort to get him the ball inside, and his strong moves with the ball made it clear he wasn’t going to be stopped.
Dexter’s final line on the night was 16 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks in 20 minutes. If that is the kind of production Texas can get from him down the stretch, there’s not much more you can ask for. Pittman is not a guy who needs to be playing 25-plus minutes per game because it limits his effectiveness. Dexter can’t hang with run-and-gun teams, and big men with long range can pull him out of the paint and limit his defensive presence. But in games like this one, he’s one of the most effective weapons the Longhorns have, and he’ll have to produce at that level the rest of the way.
As always, Damion James turned in a huge effort for the Horns. He knocked down a ton of midrange jumpers in the first half to kickstart the offense, and pulled down seven boards on the night. His 19 points were certainly important, but what was much more notable was his 6-of-8 performance at the line. Heading into the game, James was shooting just 64% from the charity stripe.
Also impressive was Jordan Hamilton, who did so many little things right tonight. For one, his defense was much improved. Even when he was beat my his man, it wasn’t for lack of effort. Oftentimes this season it has seemed like Hamilton only cared to play on one side of the ball, but not in this game. Not only did he move laterally and pressure the ball on defense, but he made smart decisions with the ball on offense. He took the open three-point looks against the zone in the first half, then took the ball to the rim when OSU played the perimeter later in the game. And, most importantly, Hamilton passed the ball instead of forcing it when there was nothing there.
Apart from the continual free throw woes (21-of-36 on the night), the biggest disappointment in this game was J’Covan Brown. Coach Rick Barnes inserted the freshman back into the starting lineup after limiting him to just five minutes against Texas Tech on Saturday. Unfortunately, Brown seemed to be trying to prove himself the entire time and looked completely uncomfortable on the floor. When J’Covan is playing freely, attacking the defense, and finding his open teammates, the Longhorns are tough to stop. But if Brown is going to respond to the spotlight the way he did tonight, Texas is going to have to struggle through the rest of the year with a point guard by committee.
The regular season sweep of Oklahoma State has positioned the Longhorns to make a late-season push for one of the first-round byes in the league’s conference tournament. Texas, A&M, and Baylor are all tied for fourth place, and are just a game behind Missouri in third. The Tigers still have games left with Kansas and Kansas State, while the Longhorns travel to both College Station and Waco. With just three games left on the schedule, everything is truly still up in the air.