Reaching Deep in Heart of Texas
All week, Connecticut point guard Taliek Brown kept explaining that he wasn’t scared to face Texas’ incandescent playmaker, T.J. Ford.
The way things turned out Friday night, the Huskies should have feared the likes of guard Brandon Mouton and center James Thomas.
The two unheralded juniors combined for 40 points and 20 rebounds to lead the top-seeded Longhorns to an 82-78 victory over fifth-seeded Connecticut in a South Regional semifinal at the Alamodome, sending Texas (25-6) to its first Elite Eight appearance since 1990, when the Longhorns fell to Arkansas.
Connecticut (23-10) was led by sophomore center Emeka Okafor, who had 21 points and 17 rebounds. Okafor also blocked six shots.
“My role on this team is to shoot open shots,” said Mouton, who scored a career-high 27 points with four three-point baskets. “I have to give credit to my teammates for finding me. My shots were just falling for me.”
And when they weren’t, Thomas was there to pick up the scraps. He finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds.
“I told anyone who would listen that we’re not a one-man team,” Texas Coach Rick Barnes said. “Everybody contributed. When they took the lead at the end, we didn’t flinch.”
It would have been easy to do, as the orange-clad crowd of 33,009 demonstrated down the stretch.
Texas’ game-high 14-point lead, 62-48 with 12:26 remaining in the game, had become a three-point deficit just over seven minutes later.
Connecticut slowed the Longhorns by sitting back in a 2-3 zone defense, daring Ford to shoot from outside. He took the challenge and failed miserably.
Ford, whose strength is his deft passing, made only three of 15 shots, including none of four on on three-pointers (though he did finish with 13 points, nine assists and two steals).
He also picked up his fourth foul at the 10:30 mark with the Longhorns clinging to a 62-55 lead, and took a seat on the bench. By the time he returned just over five minutes later, the score was tied, 71-71.
Ben Gordon’s three-point shot from the left wing with 5:14 to play gave the Huskies their first lead since midway through the first half.
But Connecticut would convert only two field goals the rest of the way. A put-back that would have tied the score with 35.1 seconds remaining got pinned between the rim and backboard.
“We were a heartbeat away ... from winning,” said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, who was hit with a costly technical foul early in the second half. “It was a weird play. Instead of getting a jump ball out of it, the game is decided by an arrow, in essence.”
The possession arrow favored Texas, the Huskies were forced to foul and the Longhorns converted their free throws to set off a wild celebration in the heavily pro-Texas crowd.
But if Connecticut had not missed 11 free throws, things might have been different, and it wouldn’t have been such a frightening finish for the Huskies.