HOUSTON - Texas went up, 61-56, matching its biggest lead of the second half on two free throws by Gary Johnson with 5:36 to play. The burnt orange portion of a three-quarters filled Toyota Center was sensing yet another quality win that would pay huge dividends for UT in March.
But the fifth-ranked Longhorns suddenly lost focus, lost their toughness - mentally and physically - and ended up losing a game it appeared to have in control with four critical turnovers in the final 5:06 of a 67-63 comeback by the 19th-ranked Spartans.
"We'll learn from this," said a dejected Rick Barnes after the game.
What Texas learned is that it has no idea how it will get its points in the final four minutes of a one-possession game. Actually it does. It has to be in A.J. Abrams' hands. But with 13 seconds left and trailing 65-63, Justin Mason struggled with a handoff to Abrams, and the ball flipped out of bounds. It was Texas 15th turnover of the game.
The Longhorns would get one last chance because Michigan State was a worse free-throw shooting team than Texas on Saturday. The Spartans came into the game shooting 65.3 percent from the line (Texas came in shooting 61.2 percent), but Kalin Lucas missed the front end of a one-and-one with 10 seconds to play. Damion James rebounded it, and Mason ended up with a wide-open 3-point attempt from the wing for the win with three seconds left. But the shot actually clipped the backboard it was so far off.
Here's the good news. Texas can get a lot better and will. The bad news is Texas had to be tough against a tough-minded Michigan State team with control of the game and wasn't. We know the Longhorns are physically tough - Justin Mason took seven stitches after an inadvertent elbow from Gary Johnson with 9:42 left in the first half.
Mason played only six minutes in the first. Damion James also suffered a busted lip from an elbow by Michigan State's Travis Walton.
But the Longhorns weren't mentally tough when the game was on the line. That's what disappointed Barnes more than anything.
"It's a tough one to lose because when we needed to get some things done offensively, we didn't, and they did," Barnes said.
With a one-point lead, Texas called timeout with 51 seconds to play. Barnes drew up a play for Gary Johnson to get the ball at the free throw line so he could drive against Michigan State's Goran Suton, who played heroically for 26 minutes (18 points on 7-of-8 shooting) after playing only 17 minutes in the previous seven games because of a sprained left knee.
But Johnson went to the top of the key, where other defenders could help on him, instead of the free throw line, and the play disintegrated. Mason ended up with a rushed 3-pointer with 31 seconds left, and Michigan State grabbed the rebound.
After two timeouts by Spartans' coach Tom Izzo, Durrell Summers drained a 3-pointer that proved to be the winning points when Damion James momentarily lost Summers on defense while trying to help out Johnson against Suton.
Here are the five key questions Texas has to answer heading into a brutal game at Wisconsin on Tuesday night (on ESPN2).
1. Who else can provide offense from the perimeter?
The first option is obviously A.J. Abrams, who had been averaging 28.5 points the last four games. But he was hounded all game by Michigan State's Travis Walton, a 6-2 senior, whom Izzo calls "the best defender in the Big Ten."
Abrams went without a made 3-point attempt for the first time in 17 games and for only the fourth time in the last three seasons. He finished 3-of-10 shooting (0-of-4 from 3-point range) for eight points with three assists and three turnovers. He kicked himself for not taking the last shot of the game. Instead, he passed to Mason, who badly missed a 3-point attempt with three seconds left.
Mason missed two 3-point attempts in the final 31 seconds and is now 4-of-18 from 3-point range this season (22.2 percent). Last season, Mason hit 34.2 percent from 3 and was a career 37.1 percent shooter from the perimeter after his first two seasons. So you would expect Mason's offense to come. He's been doing a great job of handling the point and not turning the ball over. He had 18 straight assists without a turnover before the botched handoff to Abrams in the final seconds.
But teams are not defending Mason or Dogus Balbay, which allows teams to commit a second defender to Abrams, Damion James or whoever is hot.
2. What has happened to Connor Atchley?
The man we affectionately dubbed White Out last season is costing himself a lot of money in the NBA. Atchley looked so timid and soft early in the Michigan State game, he put up two air balls that fell so far short they looked like medicine balls. Atchley was so spooked, Barnes yanked him out of the game and in an expletive-laced tirade basically told him to find his manhood. Atchley played only three minutes the first half. That was a killer for UT. Texas needs him to be the aggressive scorer he was last season, when he went on binges like he did against Tennessee (9-of-11), Texas State (9-of-11) and New Mexico State (6-of-8).
Through 11 games last season, Atchley had scored in double-figures seven times and was averaging 12.9 points per game, including 19-of-30 from 3-point range (63.3 percent). This season through 11 games, Atchley has scored in double-figures only three times and is averaging 6.9 points per game, including 12 of 29 from 3-point range (41.4 percent). Texas needs Atchley to make 3s. At 6-10, Atchley also needs to rebound. He averaged 5.3 rebounds per game last year, but is averaging only 3.6 this season. NBA scouts were salivating over Atchley last season as a guy who could block shots and hit 3s. Atchley was the third or fourth option last season, so there was little pressure. This season, there are times when he's the second option behind Abrams, and he's showing signs of not handling the pressure. He better regain the toughness he showed last season, or the NBA will lose interest.
3. Damion James is a double-double in waiting, but can you run offense through him?
Most of James' points come in the flow of the game, meaning Texas doesn't run a bunch of plays for him. The pick-and-pop action is mostly run for Atchley or Abrams. That leaves James trying to score in transition or on put-backs or as a spot-up shooter when the defense overplays Abrams. That becomes a problem in one-possession games.
James needs to show coaches he can be in the right spot at the right time, late in a close game. He's too good of a player not to be counted on when it matters most.
4. How many teams will be able to take away A.J. Abrams like Michigan State did?
Not many. Up to this point, only Oregon was able to keep Abrams under double digits, and most of that Abrams did to himself, hitting only 4-of-11 shots for nine points. But when Texas runs across a team that can defend Abrams the way Michigan State did, there has to be an alternative. Abrams also has to take over the point late in a close game and either create his own shot, or draw the defense with a drive and dish to an open shooter. Mason should be able to do that at some point this season because he showed he could be aggressive against teams like Memphis last season. But he is probably better off the ball than he is at the point when it comes to creating offense. So either Mason has to find his offense at the point, or Barnes will have to get Dogus Balbay more involved at the point and see if Mason can help create off the ball to get his offensive confidence back up. Those two missed 3s late in the game can linger. Mason can't let it.
5. What happened to Dexter Pittman, Varez Ward and Clint Chapman?
Pittman was jumpy from the start. He lost his man on defense, didn't fight over the top of screens and gave up some really easy baskets. He missed some chippies in close, and that seemed to affect his whole game. He finished 1-of-6 shooting with one block and two turnovers. He did add eight rebounds in 18 minutes of play. He also made all his free throws (4-of-4).
Ward hasn't played like a freshman all season, but he did against Michigan State. Barnes only played him for seven minutes because he was a fouling machine. He picked up two fouls in the first half, including one 60 feet from the basket.
Chapman did a few good things in only eight minutes of action, hitting 1-of-3 shots, grabbing two boards with a block and a steal to go with one turnover. The question is do you start to play Chapman ahead of Atchley, possibly shaking Atchley's confidence? Chapman is playing tougher than Atchley right now. But Barnes loves how smart Atchley usually is on the floor as a fifth-year senior.
FINAL ANALYSIS: This Texas team has a ton of upside. Think about it. UT is No. 5 with losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State. Damion James is still settling in on offense. Connor Atchley has yet to hit his stride. Dexter Pittman should continue to settle down. Justin Mason's offense should come around. Varez Ward and Dogus Balbay are in their first year of college ball. Clint Chapman is going to be a stud. And Gary Johnson is starting to become a go-to player offensively. Lots of room for improvement.
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