SAN ANTONIO -- What's it feel like to be the one man on a supposed one-man team?
In between bites of a turkey sandwich, T.J. Ford, the scintillating point guard for the University of Texas, sat in his chair in the Longhorns' locker room moments after his team's 82-78 victory over the Connecticut Huskies advanced them to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and pondered that question.
|T.J. Ford struggles a bit, but his teammates bail him out(AP)|
The stage sure was set, and that's why on a night when Ford was far from sensational, the fact his teammates picked up the slack may finally dispel the notion that the 'Horns are a one-man team.
To help get that point across, Texas coach Rich Barnes made that exact statement in his first words after the game.
"All year long I've told people we're not a one-man team," said Barnes.
In Ford, the Naismith Award winner as the nation's best player, he does have a point guard who can pass the ball like nobody else in college basketball. But after an impressive first half that included seven assists, Ford didn't play so well in the second half. He finished with 13 points and nine assists, but he shot a horrendous 3-for-15 from the field and had to sit out five minutes of the second half after picking up his fourth foul with 10:30 left in the game.
At that point, the Longhorns led 62-56 and the Huskies were in the middle of an 11-0 run that helped them overcome a 15-point deficit and eventually take the lead. When Ford picked up the foul, you could hear the hush come over the partisan crowd inside the Alamo Dome.
Would the music turn sour without their maestro?
It certainly wasn't as sweet, but after Connecticut was able to take the lead at 74-71 with 5:15 left, Texas was able to regroup and escape with a hard-fought victory that puts them one game away from the Final Four.
"We're not in this to get to the Elite Eight," Ford said after the game.
If not for his teammates, they may have been forced to be satisfied with a Sweet 16 trip. In their own way, that supporting cast came up big. Here's how:
- Small forward Brandon Mouton and his velvety touch was good for 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 4-of-7 from behind the 3-point line.
- Center James Thomas, a bruiser of a player, had 13 points and 15 rebounds playing against Connecticut power player Emeka Okafor.
- Reserve forward Brian Boddicker had a key block on a late field-goal attempt by Connecticut's Marcus White.
- Shooting guard Royal Ivey made two clutch free throws with 20 seconds left to put the Longhorns up 80-76.
Then in the end, when everyone else had made their plays, Ford sank two free throws with 10 seconds left to give Texas a four-point lead and a berth into the next round.
As the No. 1 seed in the South, and playing on anything but a neutral court, the Longhorns were expected to move on. But Ford said the team won't put any undue pressure on themselves.
"We won't let that happen," he said. "We can't let that happen. We know what we have to do. It's just a matter of us doing it."
If they get the same type of play from the supporting cast in Sunday's regional final, there is no reason why they can't win it all.
Mouton, who struggled with his shooting in the first two games, showed what a spot-up shooter can do thanks to the wonderful penetrate-and-kick skills that Ford possesses. It's as if Ford has eyes on the sides of his head, his kick-outs coming with the quickness and pinpoint accuracy of a player that has loved to pass since he was a kid.
Mouton, who said his father taught him how to shoot, said he worked on his stroke this week in the days leading up to Friday night's game.
"I just worked on my form shooting," he said. "I wanted to get the feel back." The feel was certainly there against the Huskies. Whether on the baseline or deep in the angle, Mouton knocked down the shots. When the Longhorns went up 62-48 early in the second half, it looked like the rout was on.
But, as is the case with Jim Calhoun-coached Connecticut teams, the Huskies battled back. Behind the strong inside play of Okafor, who had 21 points and 17 rebounds, plus a good move to switch to a 2-3 zone, the Huskies got back into the game.
"We knew they wouldn't quit," said Mouton.
In the end, Ford's supporting cast proved to be too much. Poor free-throw shooting by Connecticut didn't help, either. They made only 14 of their 25 free throws. Texas also proved to be a physical force inside and on the defensive end.
Texas outrebounded the Huskies 52-41 and seemed to be on the end of most of the loose balls.
"I thought the most physical game we played all year was Pittsburgh, and I will now rearrange that," said Calhoun. "Clearly the most physical team we've played is Texas. They bang you inside for 40 minutes and they get after the loose ball."
That's what grunts do. They hustle. They play defense. They don't get the glory.
On this night, though, they did.
"That isn't even close," Ford said. "We've been doing this all year long. These guys can play."
Three more games, and this one-man team will be cutting down the nets in New Orleans -- grunts included.