With the start of Big 12 play beginning this weekend, the No.7 Texas Longhorns entered Tuesday night's non-conference finale against Arkansas with one last opportunity to fine tune things before making a run at a conference championship.
When it was all said and done, Rick Barnes' team was simply out of tune, as the unranked Razorbacks stunned the Longhorns 67-62 in a game that left the Longhorns with more questions than answers.
For instance, where is A.J. Abrams' load of the scoring hiding? What in the world happened to Damion James in the final minutes of the game, as all parts of his game fell apart at the seams? Why couldn't this team finish?
Ah, yes. In Barnes' worst nightmare, he went to bed on Monday night and woke up on Tuesday morning with the same team that played against Michigan State in Houston last month and failed to close out a game that it has controlled throughout.
From top to bottom, the entire team failed to execute on the offensive end of the floor, as the Longhorns only converted three field goals in the final minutes of the game.
As was the case in Houston against the Spartans, things started to get away from them in the final four minute. With the Longhorns holding a 58-57 lead following Justin Mason's follow-up dunk off of a missed lay-up by Abrams, the Razorbacks were able to put the Longhorns on their heels for one of the first times all night when Stefan Welsh drilled a three-point shot coming out of a timeout to give the Razorbacks a 60-58 lead.
Both teams struggled on offense over the course of the next three minutes, but with 47 seconds left in the game, the Longhorns had been able to tie the score at 62-62 on another tip in by Mason.
After committing a key turnover and then taking an ill-advised shot in the final minutes, James lost sight of Arkansas forward Michael Washington, who took advantage of a the free space and attacked the rim with authority before finishing with a thunderous dunk over James, who committed a foul on the play.
The following free throw to give the Razorbacks a 65-62 lead.
The Longhorns had several chances to tie the game, but three straight misses from Abrams in the final possession of the game spelled doom for a Texas team that played anything like a veteran unit with Elite 8 experience.
James led the Longhorns with 17 points and eight rebounds, but he didn't score a point in the final nine minutes of the game and committed a couple of critical mental errors in the final two minutes.
That's not to say that James was alone in contributing to the loss. Abrams, who entered the game as the Big 12's second-leading scorer, failed to score a single point in the first half and was held to a quiet seven points for the night.
Overall, the Longhorns shot 34.8 percent from the floor and a miserable 7.1 percent (1-of-14) from three-point land. Add in only three free throw attempts in the second half and you've got a Longhorn team that just couldn't find enough offense on this night.
With the loss, the Longhorns watched their record drop to 11-3 as they head into the start of conference play on Saturday against Iowa State in Austin.
Inside the Numbers
The Longhorns finished the night 24 of 69 from the field (34.8 percent), one-of-15 (7.1 percent) from three-point land and were 12 of 15 (75.0 percent) from the free throw line. On the other side of the court, the Razorbacks were held to 38.7 percent (24-of-62) shooting from the field, 27.8 percent (five-of-18) from beyond the arc and they shot 66.7 percent (12-of-16) from the charity stripe. The Longhorns outrebounded the Hawgs 50-37, and beat them in points in the paint (42-32), second-chance points (14-8) and assists (15-12). The Razorbacks edged the Longhorns in points off turnovers (12-9), fast-break points (8-6), forced turnovers (15-12) and steals (10-4). Both teams had four blocks on defense.
Star of the game
When your team only scores three baskets in the final nine minutes of the game, it's hard to pick a true star, but we'll go with sophomore Gary Johnson, who came off the bench with 15 points and a team-best 12 rebounds. Yes, Johnson didn't shoot the ball very well (five-of-13) and he didn't always take care of the ball, but he played like a man all night and it was his physical play that really helped define this team when they were playing well in this game.
Although he didn't play well for the full 37 minutes that he was on the floor, junior point guard Justin Mason made a couple of key follow-up shots that really proved to be the only offense this team could muster late in the game. Mason finished the night with a typical Mason line - 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds and only two turnovers. What Mason's line doesn't show is that he was very timid on the offensive end of the floor at times and didn't always dictate the flow of the game like the Longhorns needed him to do in this hostile environment. Mason picked up late with those two hoops, but until that point he had been an offensive liability. The bad news is that he was far from being the only one.
You don't know what you have until you don't have it
The Longhorns played this game without the services of senior forward Connor Atchley because of a 30-stich wound that he suffered in Saturday's win over Appalachian State.
Although Atchley has struggled to find his offensive game this season, he has been a solid defender all and without him in the line-up, the Longhorns didn't have anyone that could match-up with Washington, who finished with 22 points and nine rebounds.
Whether it was Dexter Pittman, James, Johnson, or Clint Chapman, the Longhorns didn't have anyone that could corral Arkansas' best interior weapon, in part because of his ability to play inside and out.
Atchley's versatility and shot blocking ability was sorely missed on this night.
Connor, get well and get well soon.
The elephant in the room that we have to talk about
The backcourt failed the Longhorns big-time tonight.
As if Abrams struggles from the field (an atrocious three-of-16) weren't bad enough, Mason didn't have any confidence with his outside shot and the guard tandem of Varez Ward and Dogus Balbay provided the same amount of offense for the team in the scoring department as a dead man in their 32 combined minutes.
One of this team's biggest flaws is the lack of offensive oomph in the backcourt once you get past Abrams and Mason. With those guys missing everything for most of the night, the Longhorns really needed more of a contribution from Ward/Balbay in the scoring department and they just don't appear capable of shouldering that load at this moment.
You hate say it, but it is what it is. In 25 combined games this season, only Ward has scored more than six points in a game (twice).
There are going to be nights down the road when Abrams gets shit down and if the rest of the backcourt can't pick up more of the slack than they've been able to thus far this season, the Longhorns are going to have some problems on the road in Big 12 play.
Top three plays of the night
Bronze - The Razorbacks were threatening to blow the game open in the first half with a 7-0 run that had pushed their lead to 13-6 in the blink of an eye, but the Longhorns calmly addressed the situation by having Mason feed a slashing James for an easy lay-up that halted Arkansas' momentum and calmed the Longhorns at the same time.
Silver - With the Longhorns trailing 57-53 and the Arkansas faithful attempting to break eardrums across the state, Pittman took in a feed from James and powered his way to the basket for a hoop and some harm. After knocking down the free throw to complete the three-point play, the Longhorns were back to within one. It was the only converted basket within the Longhorn offense in the final nine minutes.
Gold - Mason's follow-up tip of a missed lay-up by Ward tied the game at 62-62 and gave the Longhorns a chance to win the game with one more defensive stop.
Longhorn Dunk O'Meter
All season long we plan to keep a running tally on which Longhorns are flying above the rim the most. After throwing down five dunks in their home win over the Mountaineers, the Longhorns attacked the rim tonight in Fayetteville with six dunks.
Here's tonight's scoreboard:
Damion James - 4
Dexter Pittman - 1
Justin Mason - 1
Here's the season scorecard:
Damion James - 19
Dexter Pittman - 15
Gary Johnson - 6
Justin Mason - 6
Connor Atchley - 4
Clint Chapman - 4
Alexis Wangmene - 1
The BIG number
It's just hard to beat a quality team like Arkansas on the road when you're three-point shooting percentage looks like Chan Ho Park's ERA.
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