Bohls: Don't look now, but the Texas Longhorns are leading the Big 12 men's race
Meet the first-place Texas Longhorns.
Even if only for five minutes or a lunch break or maybe a day. Or possibly longer.
No. 10 Texas will gladly take it, not that it guarantees the locals a thing. Not in this dog-eat-dog Big 12.
With Iowa State’s overtime loss to Texas Tech and Kansas State’s day-later game with Kansas on Tuesday night, the Longhorns’ 76-71 win over Baylor at a raucous Moody Center gave them bragging rights for a minute and the tiniest bit of separation from the other two Big 12 co-leaders.
The Cyclones slipped to 6-3, and the Longhorns improved to 7-2 with a tight win to sit a half-game ahead of the idle 6-2 Wildcats.
Bohls: Vic Schaefer always looking for perfection
Home wins are critical in this bunched-up Big 12 race
This may not have been a must-win for Texas, but any team with illusions of winning this league — a conference that basically is good from top to bottom and has no bottom — had better hold home-court advantage.
That’s especially true since the Longhorns head out on the road for back-to-back games in the Sunflower State against Kansas State and Kansas over the course of three days starting Saturday.
Give this Texas team immense credit for holding off Baylor for a 12-1 record at brand new Moody. In a league where Kansas and Baylor have both endured three-game losing streaks, the Longhorns (18-4) haven’t lost consecutive games all season. That takes some spunk. As well as commitment.
And whodathunk it with all this talented but tested team has had to endure through this bizarre season in which the head coach was fired?
Rodney Terry might have.
But then he’s so relentlessly positive he’d lose his roof to a tornado and just admire the new view. In addition, he preaches looking ahead no further than 40 minutes. The next 40 minutes.
A team of toughness, a team of resiliency
But these last 40 were pretty damn exhiliarating for a team that had been under Baylor’s spell for quite some time. The Longhorns snapped the Bears’ overall six-game win streak with balanced scoring, clutch defense in the second half and fuel from a passionate crowd of 10,763 at Moody.
Even amidst a scoring drought from leading scorer Marcus Carr, the Longhorns found a way to slow down the long distance-shooting Bears with terrific performances from Timmy Allen and top reserve Jabari Rice, who teamed up for 39 points to give the Horns a fourth win against a top-20 foe.
Texas ran its offense through Allen, who posted up, drove to the basket against bigger defenders and hit a ton of his patented midrange jumpers to finish with 18 points.
That’s the beauty of this team. Every player brings value to the club.
Golden: Rick Barnes there to mentor Rodney Terry
While Carr has led the team in scoring or shared the lead in 11 of Texas' 22 games, he’s been missing in action the last two games. Didn’t matter that Carr managed only 11 points against Tennessee and five in nearly 30 minutes versus Baylor because Rice has gone crazy of late, hitting a season-high four 3-pointers Monday and scoring 21 points for the second consecutive game. That’s called picking up the slack.
“He’s a great player,” an appreciative Baylor coach Scott Drew said of the transfer from New Mexico State. “He really adds a great dimension to their team.”
Texas is in strong position for last half of Big 12 schedule
A needed dimension on a night when Carr missed six of his eight attempts. Still, with Baylor pressing to close the gap, it was the cool-headed Carr who hit a step-back jumper with 27 seconds left to extend Texas’ lead to three. Rice would finish it out with perfect free throws, four of which came in the last 57 seconds.
“We wanted to finish out January. We call it the grind,” said Terry, the Longhorns' interim head coach who replaced the ousted Chris Beard in early January and has kept this team intact. “We’ve got to embrace the grind. We want to continue into February, the separation month.”
His bunch got some separation Monday night — no matter how temporary — with a gritty win over the Bears, who had beaten the Longhorns a dozen times in the last 13 meetings. Not that there’s any shame in losing to the two-time defending Big 12 champions.
“Baylor has had our number,” Terry said, knowing the Bears had been 6-1 in Austin since 2016. “Let’s be honest, we haven’t won very much. But I told the team we’ve got to find a way to get this done. No one’s going to give it to you.”
And no one did.
Not until Adam Flagler rushed his desperation shot in the final nine seconds was Texas’ win secure. Rice got the rebound and dribbled out the last seconds and then triumphantly slammed the ball on the floor, setting off a wild celebration and a little extra joy out of Terry.
Bohls: Riggles left us way too early
That also showed some respect for Baylor, which has battled Kansas of late for supremacy in the Big 12 with each winning a national championship the last two seasons.
Back to the drawing board for Baylor? Not quite
The Bears may well have the best backcourt in the nation with LJ Cryer, Keyonte George and Flagler and another big offensive threat in Jalen Bridges, but they’re too often undisciplined in their shot selection and have to worry about their No. 79 national rating in defensive efficiency. Or inefficiency, to be more blunt.
“We like winning,” Drew said. “We’ve got to get back to fixing things. It’s hard to have long winning streaks in this conference. You can play well and still not win games, but if you don’t play well, you’ve got no chance.”
Texas not only had a chance but a prime opportunity because it heeded Terry’s plea for tighter defense after No. 1 seed contender Tennessee lit up the Longhorns and shot 56% Saturday in Knoxville.
The message got through, more so in the second half. After allowing six treys to Baylor in the first half, Texas checked them on two in the second. After committing seven turnovers in the first 20 minutes, Texas was guilty of just two in the last 20. Texas connected on its last seven free throws to ice the win.
That’s called grinding it out. Now February beckons.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas' win over Baylor has Horns all alone atop Big 12 race — for now