KANSAS CITY, Mo. _Texas boosted its opportunity to secure a 14th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament with Thursday night’s 71-65 victory over No. 25 Iowa State in the Sprint Center.
The victory gave the Longhorns (20-12) their first victory of the season against a team ranked in the Top 25 of the college basketball polls at the time the game was played. Texas also defeated No. 21 Temple, 77-65, on Dec. 17 when the Owls (24-6) were unranked.
J’Covan Brown led the Longhorns to Thursday’s victory by scoring a team-high 23 points. The triumph means Texas, No. 50 in the most recent RPI rankings and projected to be the final school into the 68-team NCAA field by ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, enhanced its resume by defeating the Cyclones (22-10), the third seed in the Big 12 Tournament.
“In terms of the NCAA Tournament … I told our guys, ‘Let’s say we are on the bubble. If I wrote down ‘NIT’ or ‘NCAA,’ which one would you put your name under now?,’” said Texas coach Rick Barnes. “Whichever one you want, I can assure you you’re going to have to earn it ... And I’m just really proud of them. It’s a great team win. I thought we stayed with our game plan from start to finish better than at any point the entire year.”
Texas’ fate will not be decided until Sunday, unless the Longhorns earn the league’s automatic NCAA berth that goes to the Big 12 Tournament champion. But John Underwood, the Big 12 associate commissioner for men’s basketball, has run the numbers and likes Texas’ chances to land the league’s sixth NCAA berth as an at-large team.
“I think we’ll get six,” Underwood said. “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”
Texas has been considered an NCAA bubble team since securing a 9-9 finish in the Big 12 regular-season standings. But the Longhorns headed into Thursday’s game with an 0-8 record against ranked opponents.
That is now 1-8, thanks to a tight victory in which Brown’s 3-point play with 36 seconds remaining broke a 65-65 tie and triggered Texas’ 6-0 closing run. With the victory, Texas improved to 2-8 this season in games decided by six points or less.
The Longhorns advance to Friday’s semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament, where Texas will face No. 5 Missouri (28-4). The Tigers, an 88-70 winner over Oklahoma State, won both regular-season matchups against Texas.
To put itself in position to win, Texas went on a 22-4 run during a 6:11 stretch of the second half to erase a 40-29 deficit. The spurt put Texas on top by seven, and the lead eventually reached eight before Iowa State rallied behind forward Royce White (17 points, 10 rebounds).
White’s jumper with 52 seconds remaining forged a 65-65 tie, which Brown broke with his three-point play on the Longhorns’ ensuing possession. Brown made a short jumper in the lane while being fouled by Iowa State’s Scott Christopherson.
“I drove left and when I felt (a defender) on my side, I had to spin and I did,” Brown said. “And Christopherson came over and fouled me. I knew I had to get it on the rim.”
He did. The ball went down and, moments later, so did Brown’s foul shot. Three more free throws _ two by Jonathan Holmes, one by Myck Kabongo _ sealed the biggest victory of the season for a Texas team that has six freshmen in its rotation and played Thursday night without 6-foot-7 forward Alexis Wangmene (wrist), its top interior defender.
Yet the Longhorns, using a four-guard offense for much of the second half, were outrebounded by only a 41-39 margin by the taller, burlier Cyclones. Texas also limited itself to six turnovers while forcing 13.
“We’re not young any more. We’ve grown up,” said Kabongo, a freshman point guard who contributed seven of his 11 points during Texas’ second-half rally against ISU. “We’ve shown strides, every single one of us.”
Now, all signs point to those freshmen being headed to the NCAA Tournament. Typically, teams must finish in the Top 50 of the RPI rankings to earn an at-large, NCAA berth.
Texas’ victory over Iowa State, the No. 30 team in the latest RPI, will comfortably boost Texas into the Top 50. It also gave the Longhorns their fourth victory of the season against opponents ranked in the Top 50 of the RPI: two against Iowa State, one against Kansas State (No. 42 in RPI) and one against Temple, No. 13 in the latest RPI.
Brown said Thursday’s game had an NCAA-type feel because of everything on the line for the Longhorns.
“Tournament time is always a great thing to play in,” Brown said. “The crowd, I think we only had like a couple of fans. But they had a great amount of fans. You love to walk into other gyms and quiet their fans. So we went out there and just gave it our all for 40 minutes.”
In all likelihood, that effort probably clinched the Longhorns’ 14th consecutive berth to the NCAA Tournament.
_ Jimmy Burch