Archive for Monday, March 31, 2003

Longhorns lasso last Final Four spot

March 31, 2003


— As the final seconds ticked off, T.J. Ford dribbled to halfcourt, flashed the "Hook 'em Horns" sign to a sea of burnt orange in the crowd and hugged his grinning coach.

The standout point guard and the rest of the Longhorns can celebrate all the way to the Final Four, the school's first trip there in 56 years.

Ford scored 19 points and had 10 assists in an 85-76 victory over Michigan State in the South Regional final Sunday, leaving the Longhorns as the only top-seeded team in the tournament.

They did it just 80 miles from their Austin campus and in front of a crowd that filled the Alamodome with chants of "Texas Fight" and "Final Four." Texas will play Syracuse Saturday night in the semifinals.

"Watching everyone drop off as one seeds that last couple of days, it was just a great moment to know we're going to New Orleans," Ford said about hugging coach Rick Barnes. "I love coach. It was very important for his career and our career as players."

The other three No. 1 seeds lost in their regional finals -- Kentucky and Arizona Saturday and Oklahoma Sunday.

The last time the Longhorns played in the Final Four was 1947, when the NCAA Tournament field was only eight teams.

Barnes said Texas had been looking toward this tournament ever since losing in the round of 16 last season.

"I mentioned it from the beginning of the season," he said. "In every huddle in every game, we mention reaching the Final Four."

But he told Ford during the hug that the mission wasn't over.

"I told him we have work to do," Barnes said.

The Texas victory means the Big 12 will have two teams in the Final Four for the second straight year. Kansas University, the league's regular-season champion, won the West Regional final Saturday against Arizona.

The loss kept Michigan State from appearing in its fourth Final Four in five years.

The last time only one No. 1 seed made the Final Four was 2000, when top-seeded Michigan State won the national title.

"My hat off to Texas," said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, who watched his team give up a season high in points. "I think this team (Texas) definitely has a shot."

Texas (26-6) had five players score in double figures. Brandon Mouton had 16, Brian Boddicker 15, Sydmill Harris 12 and Brad Buckman 11 as the Longhorns tied the school record for victories in a season.

Paul Davis led Michigan State (22-13) with 15 points, and Erazem Lorbek had 14 points and nine rebounds.

The Spartans had a 38-28 rebounding advantage but couldn't match Texas' 49-percent shooting and 29-of-38 effort from the foul line. Texas never trailed after leading 18-16 in the first half, and the Spartans didn't get closer than five in the second.

Texas dictated the fast pace it wanted in the first half, shooting 53 percent as Boddicker and Harris combined to hit five 3-pointers to counter the Spartans' 23-11 rebounding advantage.

Izzo had predicted that the game would look like an "old-fashioned fistfight," and it took on the expected physical tone right away.

The Spartans tried to frustrate Ford by closing down the paint on defense and bumping him with larger bodies, especially 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard Kelvin Torbert, who had five inches and 50 pounds on Ford.

The tactic seemed to work, as Ford appeared frustrated when he twice tumbled to the floor.

"They were tough," Ford said. "They made me work for everything."

Instead of slashing, Ford started looking outside for Boddicker and Harris. Texas twice built 11-point leads, the last at 41-30 on Boddicker's 3-pointer with 3:01 left in the half.

"With T.J.'s penetration, sometimes I get lost in transition," Boddicker said. "I just got some open looks."

Texas led 43-38 at halftime, the second-most points the Spartans gave up in the first half all season.

The Spartans started heating up from long range in the second half and cut a 10-point Texas lead to 59-54 when Torbert hit his second 3-pointer.

Frequent whistles slowed the game dramatically in the second half. Texas was in the shooting bonus with more than 13 minutes to play but couldn't sustain any momentum because of the frequent stops in play. Paul Davis converted a three-point play with 7:59 left, getting the Spartans within five at 66-61.

But they couldn't pull any closer, and the Longhorns kept getting to the line.

"Every time we got it down to five, they would push it back up," said Spartans guard Chris Hill. "Whether it was a defensive stop or a quick basket, we didn't get it."

After a timeout, Mouton hit a short jumper and Buckman hit a pair of free throws and converted a three-point play on a strong layup over Lorbek.

Ford took over from there. With Torbert moved off him because of foul trouble, Ford started cutting to the basket again, hitting a driving layup and making two more free throws that made it 79-69 with 3:46 to play.

That's when the "Texas Fight" cheers got the loudest. Chris Hill quieted the crowd for a moment when his 3-pointer from the right wing made it 79-74 with 2:21 left.

Ford then fed James Thomas with another one of his spectacular assists, a sharp pass to Thomas under the basket. The layup helped Texas pull away for good.

"He finds a way to win," Barnes said. "T.J. made things happen."

"They've got all the key ingredients to win a championship," said MSU forward Aloysius Anagonye, who was on the 2000 title team. "Rebounding, the guard play and the defense."

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