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Year of the Strong Horns?

The big Longhorns sports news? Despite close loss to OU, UT has a basketball team

Michael Corcoran
Javan Felix Longhorns basketball
Javan Felix Photo courtesy of UT Athletics
Isaiah Taylor UT basketball
Isaiah Taylor Photo courtesy of UT Athletics

In 2005, Facebook was just for college kids, Vince Young was leading Texas to a national championship and every food trailer in town was parked at a construction site.

That was also the last year the Oklahoma Sooners basketball team beat Texas in Austin. But the nine-year skid ended Saturday night at the Erwin Center with OU beating a young and reckless, but also spirited and intense, Texas team 88-85. Oklahoma hit 13 three-point field goals and got a lot of garbage rebounds in the stretch to drop the Greenhorns to 11-3. OU is now 12-2.

Led by Javan Felix’s career-high 28 points, the Horns played tired at the end, missing four straight free throws when leading 76-75. Horns freshman bomber Damarcus Croaker had stroked in 5-7 from beyond the arc, but missed a three with two seconds left that would’ve tied the game. And he heard about it from Coach Rick Barnes, whose harsh, disciplinarian ways split last year’s team on the way to a dreadful 16-18 record.

On a night when everyone was confirming Charlie Strong as Mack Brown’s replacement, another big story was coming out of the 40 Acres: We have a basketball team! 

On a night when even the Austin American-Statesman sports staff — descendants of the last caveman to accept fire — was confirming Louisville football coach Charlie Strong as Mack Brown’s replacement, another big story was coming out of the 40 Acres: We have a basketball team! One that comes to play every game, every half, every time, up and down the floor. This is big news after last season’s dreadful outfit, who rebelled against Coach Barnes’ constant negativity by doing things their way and ended up with a first round exit from a tourney that looks up to the NIT.

Last year’s top three scorers are gone, and, still, the young follow-up squad is better, though they didn’t play particularly well Saturday — especially with their most consistent player, junior forward Jonathan Holmes, sitting out almost all the first half after picking up two quick fouls.

Holmes’ return in the second half included an old-fashioned three-point play and a dunk in consecutive possessions to put Texas, which trailed in double digits for much of the first half, in the lead 49-45. Texas seemed to have the game under control with its pressing defense, but Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield kept bagging threes, while the Horns seemed scattered on offense.

Sophomore center Cameron Ridley, who had that first-day-of-kindergarten look last year, is starting to show why he was the No. 8 rated player out of high school, but he had a subpar game against OU. Getting the ball into Cam the Jam is key to freeing up shooters with an in-and-out game, but Ridley’s hands were unsure, and the ball was often slapped away. He did score 15 points, throwing down a vicious dunk and converting the attendant free throw to put Texas ahead 74-71 with about five minutes to play. But Ridley was a little slow to react to Sooner clankers, and OU got 17 offensive boards.

Fearless freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor, this year’s most pleasant surprise, also played below his standard at this Big 12 opener, scoring just two points. Whatever Barnes saw early on, he didn’t like and “Big Push” spent most of the game on the bench.

It was a game they should’ve won, but Texas starts off conference play 0-1, with a trip to tough Oklahoma State on Wednesday. Still, after beating a 14th-ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill last month, this group of Horns is one you can’t count out. As long as Holmes and Felix stay healthy, Ridley and Taylor continue to improve and Croakley keeps working on his A.J. Abrams impression, this looks like a team that’ll win 23 or 24 games and make the Big Dance. That used to be a given in Barnes’ first 15 seasons at Texas, but let Charlie Strong be a reminder of how fast fortunes can change at the world’s richest sports college.

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