The naysayers will point to Blake Griffin missing the second half of UT's 73-68 victory Saturday night on ESPN's College Game Day in front of a soldout Erwin Center crowd.
But even when Griffin was in the game, Texas went right at him. A.J. Abrams drew a charge. Dexter Pittman drew a foul. Suddenly, the leading candidate for national player of the year was on the bench at the 13-minute mark of the first half with two fouls. When he came back in with 7:57 left in the first half, he collided with Dogus Balbay at the 6:00 mark and then had a fender bender with Pittman at the 4:10 mark. OU officials weren't sure if it was the contact with Balbay (which snapped Griffin's head back) or Pittman that caused Griffin's concussion. But Griffin was ruled out for the second half.
"He felt us when he was in there," said Rick Barnes, who praised his team's physical play and determination in a gameplan straight out of his days at Clemson, when he had physical players who could beat up more skilled teams.
"We wanted Blake to guard every possession," said Damion James, who finished with 16 points on 7-of-16 shooting and 10 rebounds - seven of those on the offensive end. "Our gameplan was to not settle for jump shots. We wanted to put pressure on the basket, and we were able to do that. We have a chance to turn this around. But this game don't mean nothing if we don't come out and play well on Wednesday (against Texas Tech)."
Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said Saturday's game marked the first time his team didn't make clutch plays at the end of a game. He cited a turnover by Taylor Griffin with 3:29 left when OU was up 64-63 (Damion James ripped the ball out of his hands), and allowing Pittman to rebound his own miss for a putback with 12 seconds left in the game to put Texas up, 71-68.
"We've played hard all year," said Capel, whose team probably would have ascended to No. 1 on Monday with a win. "It's not Blake and the Sooners. It's Oklahoma. We lost. There's no moral victories in our program."
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Folks, we're witnessing a team finding its identity. As I wrote after the A&M game, this is a team that will ride Dogus Balbay's ability to push the ball, penetrate and dish. Texas worked this gameplan to perfection as it did against Oklahoma State, Colorado and the first 12 minutes of the Texas A&M game.
Balbay finished with nine assists and two turnovers and almost single-handedly kept the pace of the game where Texas wanted it. His ability to get by Tony Crocker and Austin Johnson to set up Pittman, James and Gary Johnson for easy layups also allowed UT to dominate in the paint (42-30)
Texas has struggled to dominate anyone in the paint, let alone the team with the national player of the year. But with Balbay, Texas is now also getting points in transition. The Longhorns won that category 17-6 and also dominated second-chance points 17-9.
"Dogus makes us get out and run," James said. "If you're not running, he'll go past you, and that can be a good thing because if he misses, you can go in behind him and put it back in."
Texas beat OU 13-5 on fast break points. This is a new Texas team. The identity is forming. It all starts with Balbay.
"He's a big piece right now," Barnes said.
I asked Balbay what he's doing now that he wasn't doing earlier in the year. How could it have taken until there were eight games left for this to have happened?
"I wasn't taking care of all of the details, especially on defense," Balbay said.
I asked Barnes the same question.
"Even tonight, he made a careless pass late in the game," Barnes said. "We can't have that."
Nonetheless, the confidence is growing - Balbay's and his teammates' in him.
"I know I have to push the ball for us to be successful," Balbay said. "I have to get in the paint and create shots for A.J., Damion, Dexter and Gary. When I wasn't playing as much, I would see the offense bog down, and it was frustrating. I know I have to get us going."
Added Abrams, "The reason we put Dogus in the lineup is he can push the ball and bring a different speed, and he can guard."
Oklahoma's Taylor Griffin said of Balbay, "He's been playing with a lot of confidence lately, and we weren't successful in stopping him."
STAR OF THE GAME
It's hard to miss the show A.J. Abrams put on the second half of this one - at one point scoring 16 straight points for the Longhorns right after an 11-0 run by OU. Abrams and Oklahoma freshman Willie Warren both went 4-of-7 from 3-point range over the final 20 minutes.
Warren, who even banked in a 3 at one point, finished with 27 points. Abrams finished with 23.
Let me repeat: Abrams scored 16 straight points for UT - from the 4:58 mark to the 1:13 mark, including three 3-pointers. His one-man barrage came at a critical time for the Longhorns because James fouled out with 2:35 left, after Johnson left the game with a left ankle injury at the 8:50 mark (Johnson's day-to-day, although it's unlikely he'll play Wednesday against Texas Tech).
"I was feeling pretty good," said Abrams, who had only five points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half. "They say players make big plays when the game is on the line, and Dex came up with a big rebound."
With 2:35 left in the game, Warren and Abrams shared a laugh as Ryan Wright prepared to shoot a free throw for the Sooners.
"I talked to A.J. and asked him if he could stop making shots to help us out. But he didn't listen at all," said Warren, who was recruited heavily by Texas but demanded a promise from Barnes that he'd start, which Barnes doesn't do, so he signed with OU.
Added Abrams, "Willie had a great night shooting the ball. My mindset wasn't, 'I have to outshoot him,' it's, 'We have to get this win.' He said, 'You need to calm down making all these 3s,' and I said, 'If you calm down, I'll calm down.'"
Texas consciously gets the ball out of Balbay's hands late in a close game because of his poor free throw shooting (9-of-26, .346) and into the hands of Abrams, who takes over the point. Abrams hit two foul shots with 4.4 ticks on the clock to give Texas its final margin.
Abrams' big night came as he set the UT record for career games played with No. 135, passing Brian Boddicker (2001-04) and James Thomas (2001-04).
The officials for allowing the play to be physical - like an NCAA Tournament game. As rough-and-tumble as the game was in the paint, neither team shot more than nine free throws. UT was 7-of-9 from the foul line, and OU was 6-of-8.
TOUGH DAY AT THE OFFICE
Gary Johnson appeared to be in excruciating pain when he rolled his left ankle with 8:50 left to play. He had to be helped to the end of the bench, and Damion James said he thought the injury was bad, although UT is calling it day-to-day. For Texas to win this game without James or Johnson on the floor for the final 2:35 of a one-possession game is a major step for the Longhorns.
Dexter Pittman started for Texas Saturday because of his matchup with Blake Griffin, meaning Barnes brought Johnson off the bench. Johnson had eight points and five boards before he got hurt. Connor Atchley provided a spark with a 3-pointer in the first half, five points and some solid defense. There was a Clint Chapman sighting with positive results. ("I liked what Clint gave us tonight," Barnes said of Chapman's two points and one rebound in seven minutes.)
Varez Ward didn't play well in seven minutes, allowing Warren to hit a couple of his 3s and settling for jump shots for the second straight game instead of driving to the basket. Hopefully, Barnes is done replacing Balbay at the point early in games with Ward (it failed again Saturday) and instead will use Abrams or Mason at the point when Balbay needs a rest.
UT outscored OU 17-10 in bench points.
TOP THREE PLAYS OF THE GAME
Bronze - Atchley's jump shot with 13:48 left in the game to snap a 14-0 run by the Sooners - the first of two monster runs by OU.
Silver - Damion James putback slam on a failed driving layup by Balbay with 18:48 left in the game. It set the tone for the Longhorns right after intermission.
Gold - Any of Abrams 16 straight points for UT in the final 4:58 of the game. HUGE!
Dunks in the OU game:
Damion James - 1
Dunks for the season:
Damion James - 40
Dexter Pittman - 31
Gary Johnson - 8
Justin Mason - 7
Clint Chapman - 5
Connor Atchley - 5
Varez Ward - 1
Alexis Wangmene - 1
THE BIG NUMBER
Dogus Balbay's assists-to-turnover ratio in his four starts (28 assists, 7 turnovers)
FINAL ANALYSIS: If Balbay can continue to drive this team the way he has from the point and if Gary Johnson's ankle injury is not serious, Texas is finding its identity. Damion James has bought into his role of attacking the glass (and putting back Balbay's misses). The Longhorns worked their offense from the inside out Saturday night. Abrams didn't start taking a bunch of outside shots until Texas had already been dominating in the paint because of Balbay's drives. It may have taken too long to get Balbay into the starting lineup, but now that he's there, the Longhorns are starting to look like a team again. This is the group that beat Villanova, UCLA and went on the road to beat Wisconsin. This win should be just what this team needed with three very winnable games straight ahead (Texas Tech Wednesday, at Oklahoma State next Saturday and home against Baylor on Big Monday (March 2). As I like to say, Texas is now four games into its third season in 2008-09. We had Season No. 1 with Justin Mason at point guard and Season No. 2 with Abrams at point guard. Now, it's Season No. 3 with Dogus doing the driving. There's no turning back now. Balbay has to stay out of foul trouble, which he didn't do at Texas A&M but did do against OU. Balbay finished with two fouls and didn't pick up his second until there was 3:59 left on the clock.
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