AUSTIN -- Upgrade the forecast for Texas' 14th consecutive trip to the NCAA men's basketball tournament to "probable."
The Longhorns enhanced their chances Saturday with their most inspired half of the season, rallying from a 15-point deficit in the final 19 minutes to defeat Kansas State 75-64 at the Erwin Center.
The victory gave Texas (16-9, 6-6 Big 12) its first three-game winning streak in league play and its third triumph of the season against a team among the Top 50 in the RPI rankings. By beating the Wildcats (17-7, 6-6), the Longhorns moved back to the .500 mark against conference opponents.
That looms as a huge step toward an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament because a 9-9 finish in league play probably will be good enough to earn the Longhorns a ticket to the Big Dance in March.
Now they are on pace to hit that mark with four of Texas' six remaining games against teams with losing records in league play: two against Oklahoma (13-11, 3-9) and one each against Oklahoma State (12-13, 5-7) and Texas Tech (8-16, 1-11).
Based on his postgame comments, Kansas State coach Frank Martin already views Texas as an NCAA-caliber team after watching the Longhorns close with a 48-22 flurry by dominating both ends of the court.
"I can't compliment their team enough," Martin said. "They came out in the second half and they punched us in the mouth. ... They got us on the ropes and we never punched back.
"Defensively, they crawled up into us and completely took us out of anything that we tried to do. Everything we did early in the game just went out the window."
The Longhorns' closing stretch featured liberal doses of forward Alexis Wangmene, who posted career highs for points (15) and rebounds (13), as well as guard J'Covan Brown (game-high 23 points) and a suffocating defense. It also featured a 28-0 edge in second-half free throws for the Longhorns and a 48-12 advantage overall.
Asked about the disparity, Martin said: "I didn't officiate." But he stressed that his team became too tentative in the second half, creating an opening for Texas to turn around a game while the Wildcats connected on just 32.3 percent of their shots after intermission.
Texas, meanwhile, hit 68.8 percent from the field in the second half (11 of 16) while erasing the Wildcats' 40-27 halftime lead.
Texas coach Rick Barnes credited Wangmene with playing "the best game he has ever played at Texas." And the timing could not have been better. With the Longhorns clinging to the No. 54 spot in the RPI rankings, Saturday's matchup against K-State (No. 49 in RPI) projected as a season-turner in either direction.
By beating the Wildcats, Texas is well positioned to finish at .500 or better in Big 12 play regardless of what happens in upcoming matchups against No. 7 Kansas (20-5, 10-2) or No. 6 Baylor (21-4, 8-4). That is why Brown called it "a great win" for a team in need of one.
"We've got a winning streak going," Brown said. "We need to let our defense dictate the rest of our games. If we do that, everything will be OK."
It certainly worked that way in the second half Saturday. After K-State boosted its halftime lead to 42-27, Texas went on a 16-2 run to claw back within a point. When the Wildcats stretched the lead to six, Brown made a pair of 3-point shots and added a three-point play to put Texas on top to stay, 56-54, with 8:20 remaining.
Wangmene helped Texas protect the lead by grabbing nine of his 13 rebounds in the second half. He also blocked two shots and impacted others. After the game, Martin said he told Wangmene, "That was awesome."
"I can't stand losing," Martin said. "But when you see a senior ... play a game like that, that's what it's about."
Wangmene said he welcomed matching up against K-State's inside players after the Wildcats limited him to four points in the teams' first meeting, an 84-80 victory by K-State on Jan. 18 in Manhattan, Kan.
"I especially like physical games," Wangmene said. "I really don't care how physical they are. I'm just going to go out there and play because, in my own mind, I think I'm the strongest."
Wangmene was strong enough Saturday to help Texas win a game that projects as pivotal to its NCAA Tournament hopes. But more follow-ups will be needed before the Longhorns can be sure their postseason destination is spelled N-C-A-A instead of N-I-T.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760