There was a time not long ago when coming across hard-core Longhorn basketball fans deep in the heart of Texas was about as likely as finding Pee-Wee Herman’s bike in the basement of the Alamo.
Football is king here and there is no underground room at the shrine to Texas liberty.
But after the top-seeded Longhorns held off No. 7-seeded Michigan State, 85-76, in the South Regional final Sunday, scores of new, burnt orange-clad Texas fans will be doing a two-step to New Orleans for the program’s third Final Four appearance, its first since 1947.
The Longhorns (26-6), the only No. 1-seeded team to survive a weekend of upsets, will play Syracuse (28-5) in a national semifinal.
“It’s special because you’re living the dream,” Texas Coach Rick Barnes said. “It’s what you start talking about during the recruiting process. It’s what you talk about during a season.
“But today, I thought, was the story all year of our basketball team -- different guys were stepping up to do different things. It was a great team effort.”
Five Longhorns scored in double figures with sophomore point guard T.J. Ford leading all scorers with 19 points, including 11 of 13 free throws, in 37 minutes.
Ford, who had 10 assists, dished out praise as well.
“All year we depended on our bench,” he said, referring to the contributions of reserves Brian Boddicker (15 points, six rebounds) and Sydmill Harris (12 points) on Sunday.
“That’s how we go as a unit. We consider ourselves as a team and we expect them to come in and do their job.”
The play by the reserves enabled the Longhorns to score the most points allowed all season by the defense-minded Spartans, who had not given up more than 64 points in their previous nine games.
Michigan State (22-13) -- led by freshman center Paul Davis’ 15 points -- pushed the tempo early and rattled Texas, surprisingly outrunning the Longhorns in building a 16-13 lead with 12:43 remaining in the first half.
Then a tired and frustrated Ford, who asked out of the game to regain his composure with the Longhorns trailing by a point, watched as Texas ran off a 7-1 spurt with him on the bench.
Shortly after he returned, a rejuvenated Ford led Texas on a 10-0 run to push its lead from 25-24 to a game-high 11 points.
“They’re a great defensive team and they made it tough on me,” Ford said of his early-game troubles. “They were making me work for every shot that I was taking.
“But my teammates were just telling me to keep staying in there and pushing, that eventually I’d get some calls [from the officials]. They have a lot of trust in me and everybody carried the load.”
Texas, mixing different zone defenses with occasional man-to-man, forced 12 turnovers and outscored Michigan State, 16-2, in points off turnovers.
The Longhorns led by 11 points three times in the first half but the Spartans would not go away, closing the gap to five points at the half.
They got as close as five points six more times in the second half and were within 81-76 with 1:35 to play.
But after Texas ran the shot clock down, then rebounded one of its own missed shots, Michigan State was forced to foul.
“We kept getting within five and were asking ourselves, ‘How?’ ” said Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo. “They never let us over the hump. They bent, but they didn’t break.”
And that delighted the overwhelmingly pro-Texas crowd -- an estimated 27,000 of the 30,169 in the Alamodome sported something orange.
Barnes defended the huge home-court advantage enjoyed by the Longhorns, whose campus is about 75 miles away. He insinuated it was part of the spoils of being seeded No. 1. Because even if they were the most controversial No. 1-seeded team in the tournament, they are the only one heading to New Orleans.
“That’s what you play for,” Barnes said. “Our guys worked hard all year to get this chance to play here. It’s why you play a tough nonconference schedule, to get this chance. These guys earned this. They deserved it.”