Thursday, March 11, 2010
Updated: April 8, 1:38 PM ET
Just like that, it was over
By Jeff Caplan
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Texas toast, burnt to a crisp in three minutes flat.
That'll do it for the sixth-seeded Longhorns at the Big 12 tournament. They were masticated by a Baylor Bears rampage to start the second half Thursday and lost 86-67. Now Texas will wait to see whether it's off to Buffalo or Providence or Spokane or whichever distant destination the NCAA selection committee sends the most disappointing team in the nation.
Book it for Siberia. Texas' eroded game and scattered minds are buried deep in the hinterland.
"I'd like to think we still have time, but it's really mental," Texas forward Gary Johnson said. "It's not like guys aren't playing hard, so that's one positive. It's just the mental part, and I don't know how much time that actually takes to get everybody on the same page mentally. It's been that way for the past two months."
Here's the cold, hard fact: Projected as a 6- or 7-seed when the 65-team NCAA tournament bracket is set Sunday evening, Texas is poised to receive the second-worst seed of any team that spent time ranked No. 1 since the seeding system started in 1979.
Alabama folded into a 10th seed in 2003. Florida in 2004 and UCLA in 1994 each nosedived to a fifth seed. What do all three have in common? One and done.
Still, Texas players cling to belief in their undeniable individual talent like a life preserver.
"Everybody on our team is better than anybody in the country," soft-spoken senior center Dexter Pittman said. "We just have to put it all together."
Once 17-0 and atop the national rankings in mid-January, the Longhorns were exiled from one poll two weeks ago and banished by the other this week. They now stand a wobbly 24-9.
On Thursday night, Baylor swiftly sent the burnt orange home, first with tempers flaring -- Damion James was hit with a technical foul as the game unraveled -- and finally with heads hanging. The team-first Bears beat up their old bullies for a third time this season and a fourth consecutive time going back to last year's Big 12 tourney.
It happened so fast. We looked up and we were down by 15.
-- Texas forward Gary Johnson
Leading 43-39 at halftime despite leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn being stuck on the bench for 15 minutes without a bucket and with three fouls, Baylor blistered Texas in the opening three minutes of the second half, a 13-2 flurry of steals and fast breaks that all but knocked tormented Texas to its knees.
Dunn, explosive after sitting so long, had seven quick points and a steal.
Panicked, Texas turned it over three times in those first three minutes after just three turnovers in the first half, and Baylor wore out a path to the basket.
"It happened so fast," Johnson said. "We looked up and we were down by 15."
While the Horns can pack light next week, Dunn, Tweety Carter, Ekpe Udoh and the rest of the Bears -- winners of five straight, eight of nine and a school record-tying 25 to just six losses -- seem to be only scraping their potential.
Next up is Friday's semifinal against second-seeded Kansas State, winner in a romp over Oklahoma State. Bet that the Bears will be ready. Two K-State free throws with 8.2 seconds left and Dunn's ensuing off-balance miss at the buzzer are all that separated these two rising programs in the regular season.
Win or lose Friday, Baylor is headed for uncharted territory, possibly a fourth seed in the NCAA tournament, its second trip in three years under coach Scott Drew.
"It just shows where our program's at right now and what we've been able to accomplish," Drew said. "Again, all the credit goes to the players, because when you have players coaching, they make us look pretty good."
Although Baylor landed a TKO early in the second half, the players set it up with a circle-the-wagons first half. Dunn sat down with 15:40 left with a third foul via a double technical called on him and Texas guard J'Covan Brown after a dust-up.
Baylor got contributions everywhere. The 6-foot-10 Udoh was terrific, nearly matching his season average with 12 points in the first half on his way to a game-high 25.
Sophomore Fred Ellis, averaging 1.2 points and 3.2 minutes a game, hopped off the bench and buried consecutive 3-pointers. Backup guard A.J. Walton more than doubled his scoring average, with all seven of his points coming in the first half. Carter, hot to start the game, finished with 20.
And Dunn, burning with pent-up energy, dazzled in the second half and finished with 19 points, seven assists and nine rebounds in 22 minutes.
"I wanted to come out and just provide for my team," Dunn said. "I think I did a great job of it."
Meanwhile, Texas fractured. James and Avery Bradley combined for 28 of 39 first-half points. They each had two in the second half. Pittman finished with 14 but was mostly ineffective, and Johnson disappeared with two points.
It's back to the drawing board for Texas, even though the end seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.
|LaceDarius Dunn scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half as Baylor put away Texas.|