Thursday, March 18, 2010 Updated: April 8, 1:38 PM ET
Once-promising season ends with thud
By Jeff Caplan ESPNDallas.com
NEW ORLEANS -- If there are two more dysfunctional teams in America, perhaps they're playing at the downtown Y. But let's not nitpick Wake Forest. After all, the Demon Deacons somehow won a game that both teams tried hard to lose, and thought they had, more than once.
Finally, all involved with Texas basketball can stop pretending. This catastrophic free fall from No. 1 had no magic parachute. Not two months ago and not now. The crash-and-burn is complete, the the reading of the rites was inevitably completed Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
That No. 9 Wake Forest, a team that mustered one win since Feb. 13, ended the eighth-seeded Longhorns' season, 81-80 in overtime, amid such incompetency for the victors only underscored Texas' strange reign of dysfunction.
Damion James' career at Texas didn't end the way he'd hoped it would.
"It's a disappointing, tough, heartbreaking loss," Texas coach Rick Barnes said.
The Longhorns got lucky to get to overtime, built an eight-point OT lead, and then crumbled in the final three minutes.
Freshmen J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton (19 points) drained back-to-back 3-pointers in overtime that appeared to put Texas on a straight road to victory.
As if to define the entire night of ups and downs and, really, Texas' season, Brown showed up in the second half with his best game, ready to be the hero with a team-high 20 points. But somehow the 90 percent free throw shooter missed two in a row with 49 seconds left in overtime to keep the lead at four instead of six.
He'd make his next two with 28 seconds left, but when he inexplicably threw a crosscourt pass in the backcourt to teammate Gary Johnson with 10 seconds left and Wake needing to foul, it was another bad sign.
"Right when he got ready to get rid of it, they were yelling to foul," Barnes said. "I was watching the 10-second clock because he should have kept the ball. I told him that. ... But that's being young."
Johnson bricked both attempts, enabling Wake Forest senior point guard Ishmael Smith, a thorn all night with 17 points and seven assists, to speed through Texas' defense. His short leaner hit nothing but net, and the buzzer sounded on Texas' season 1.3 seconds later.
Texas was stunned at the sudden loss, but might as well have been equally shocked at being in the game at all after shooting 37.7 percent from the field, missing 13 of 30 free throws and getting pounded on the boards. The Longhorns gave up 20 offensive boards, each one seemingly resulting in a thunderous dunk by Wake's Tony Woods, who slammed home two in overtime.
"People will look at the free throws at the end," Barnes said. "But we really got just pounded on the glass. I can never remember getting outrebounded 59-34."
While Wake Forest celebrated, Texas coaches and players hustled off the court as a date with top-seeded Kentucky on Saturday instead turned into one last sinking moment.
Oh well, it's probably just as well. Who needs the embarrassment?
This night was rough enough. It will be a sickening few days for seniors Damion James and Dexter Pittman, both of whom ended their careers unceremoniously.
James finished with 16 points and six rebounds, but was 4-of-14 from the field and misfired on 6-of-7 from beyond the 3-point arc. He made 7-of-8 free throws, but his lone miss, with 9.9 seconds left in regulation, prevented Texas from taking its first lead since the second half started.
James was in no mood to talk about the end of Texas' bungled season.
"No comment," he said.
Pittman, who has been a virtual no-show since conference play started, finished with five points and was 1-of-4 from the field. His final two misses, with about four minutes left, will haunt him. Pittman had a chance to cut Wake's lead to two, but he inexplicably came up short on two lay-ins, essentially blocking his own shots with the rim.
How a 17-0 team in mid-January finished 24-10 two months later is mystifying. The obvious question is where Barnes' program goes from here. The answer is as muddled as the season.
James is gone. Pittman is gone. Justin Mason is gone. Freshman guard Avery Bradley might have no choice but to leave. He appears to be a probable first-round pick -- as amazing as that seems -- and the NBA's unsettled labor situation and potential lockout in 2011-12 likely will convince those on the fence to go pro.
Hamilton again flashed what he can do with 16 points in the first half, but he was visibly frustrated while getting only three more shots the rest of the game.
"He got a little emotional, you know," Barnes said. "He broke down a little bit mentally."
And who knows what to make of Brown, who played just three of his 22 minutes in the first half.
There is only one new freshman coming at the moment, and 6-9, 240-pound forward Tristan Thompson is considered a big catch. They hope to find another point guard.
It's not exactly the cavalry.
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.