Longhorns turn a corner to close scheduled series between rivals

Posted Monday, Feb. 06, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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COLLEGE STATION -- Texas picked the perfect time to pick up its first road victory of the season against a Big 12 opponent. As well as its first triumph of the season in a game decided by six points or fewer.

The Longhorns left a lasting impression on rival Texas A&M in the last scheduled men's basketball game between the longtime rivals, walking out of Reed Arena with a 70-68 victory on Monday night.

The victory was Texas' first on the road since Dec. 3 against UCLA. But more important, it allowed the Longhorns to silence a loud Aggies crowd -- much like the football team did on Thanksgiving night -- in a high-profile Goodbye Game in College Station.

The victory gave the Longhorns a 3-0 edge in scheduled football and men's basketball games between the schools during the 2011-12 school year, A&M's final season as a Big 12 member. And none are left on the schedule before the Aggies head to the Southeastern Conference in July.

It remains possible that the longtime rivals could cross paths again at the Big 12 postseason tournament. Or possibly in the NIT, which seems a more likely destination for both teams than the NCAA Tournament.

But there is nothing definite on the docket, which means Texas guard J'Covan Brown could remain a hero for a long time in the estimation of Longhorns fans who watched him pour in 20 points and dish out seven assists during Monday's contest -- the 222nd career meeting between the schools.

Brown proved pivotal down the stretch in helping Texas erase its lone second-half deficit: a 67-66 A&M lead with 1:03 remaining. Brown responded with a driving layup on Texas' next possession, then added a pair of free throws with 17.7 seconds remaining to extend the lead to 70-67. Brown did most of his damage from 3-point range, hitting 4 of 4 shots from beyond the arc to help Texas improve its record to 1-7 this season in games decided by six points or fewer.

The Longhorns definitely caught the Aggies on a good night for a road victory. A&M played without two starters, forward Khris Middleton (knee) and point guard Dash Harris (foot), because of injuries. It marked the fifth consecutive game for Middleton to miss and the fourth for Harris. Both are expected back for Saturday's game at Iowa State, A&M coach Billy Kennedy said.

But none of that mattered against the Longhorns, who turned up the defensive pressure on the A&M backcourt to force some timely turnovers. Freshman Sheldon McClellan added 15 points, 13 of them in the first half, with fellow freshman Jaylen Bond contributing a game-high eight rebounds.

Unlike in Austin, when the teams met Jan. 11 while school was not in session and the student crowd was minimal, the atmosphere Monday was lively despite the lack of a sellout. The announced crowd of 9,792 was A&M's largest of the season but still well below capacity (12,989).

The SEC issue surfaced during a first-half infomercial that proclaimed: "New Conference. New Coach. The same 12th Man." That triggered chants of "SEC! SEC!"

The crowd also responded to Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, a former A&M standout and the 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, who attended the contest. During a second-half interview with ESPN, Miller said he would miss the recurring matchups with Texas because, "That rivalry was something special. Not only to Texas, but to America. It would be good to get it back."

Other than the occasional nostalgic thought, Monday was mostly about basketball. And the bigger question for both teams is whether either school can get on a strong enough run to extend its streak of consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament (13 for Texas; six for A&M).

Without Harris in the mix, the Aggies (12-11, 3-8 in Big 12) have struggled against pressure defenses.

"Once they... start pressing us, we wear down," Kennedy said. "Then you have a lapse for two or three minutes. And that's all it takes against a good team."

A more consistent, full-game effort is essential, Kennedy said, if the Aggies are to turn things around and reach postseason play.

For Texas (15-9, 5-6), the season-long issue has been getting a freshman-laden roster to step up with big plays during crunch time.

"We've been knocking at the door," Texas assistant coach Rob Lanier said.

"When you're that close, you start to feel like, eventually, there will be a breakthrough... We're certainly encouraged by the efforts that these young guys have made and the fact they've remained connected through some adversity."

Texas finally worked through enough adversity Monday to win a close game during crunch time. On the road. In the final scheduled game against A&M.

From a Texas perspective, the timing could not have been better for such a breakthrough.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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