Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and Demarcus Holland — all on last year’s Longhorn team that lost in the first round of the tournament you slithered into if you weren’t good enough for the NIT — starred in a thrilling 87-85 NCAA tournament win over 10-seeded Arizona State Thursday night. This is a different team.
Ridley hit the game winner, rebounding a Holmes miss and throwing it up against the backboard as the horn went off. Coach Rick Barnes threw his hands straight up like he was watching Justin Tucker. That play was football big!
The Horns stay in Milwaukee to play 2-seeded Michigan on Saturday. But they’re already winners for refusing to crumble, and blowing a 14-point second half lead against the storming Sun Devils. The Horns' last three baskets were after offensive rebounds, including a three-point play by Holmes that put the Horns up by two with 40 seconds left. Both teams played with an intensity that was exhausting to watch.
Barnes was named Big 12 Coach of the Year before one of his greatest games at the helm. Liking something he saw with little-used Martez Walker, Barnes left the freshman from Detroit in the game while a shot-eager Javan Felix sat on the bench. Walker led the Horns with 16 points. Holland, in there for defense with three steals, also hit all six of his shots, including a bench-clearing dunk late in the second half, to finish with 14 points.
Last year’s team rebelled against the authoritative Barnes, who can be annoying if you’re not hustling or if you look lost on defense, and the three leading scorers bailed from UT at season’s end. Turns out, those guys were the problem. The 2013-14 team has shown character and guts all season long, taking everything Barnes dished out with a nod of determination. The 24-10 Horns had that amazing stretch in January when they beat four ranked teams in a row, including routing Kansas at home. But there have also been trying times, with enough late-season L’s to spell Lykke Li at Lollapalooza.
The turnaround started with Houston’s Ridley, one of the nation’s top 10 recruits out of high school, who was flatfooted and confused last season, a bit of a bust. The kid worked his ass off to get in better shape and became more confident in his role as first option on the inside-out offense. Last season Ridley would’ve been on the bench, gasping for air, during such a fast game. But No. 55 had enough energy left after 30 minutes of playing time to rescue Holmes’ wounded duck and send Texas to the second round. Manhood!
Freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor is a fearless player who sets the team identity, but he needs to play better against Michigan than he did against ASU for the underdog Horns to have a chance. And Holmes and Felix, though they both hit huge shots late, better say their prayers tonight. Dear God, let me be more consistent.
Doesn’t it feel like the pressure’s off? This team, with no high profile additions, wasn’t even supposed to make the tournament. Now they’re on to round 2. You never know how a team will play when they’ve got nothing to lose. But these overachievers aren’t going to step out on the court like they’ve already won. They’re not coached that way.