January 19, 2013

Texas loses another lead, falls to Kansas

The Longhorns are starting to question themselves.

AUSTIN -- Another blown second-half lead by the Texas Longhorns led to a postgame confession from Sheldon McClellan, the team's leading scorer.

Players could see this one coming, McClellan said, as No. 4 Kansas rallied from a double-digit deficit in the closing minutes to escape with a 64-59 victory that assured Texas (8-9, 0-4 in Big 12) of matching its worst-ever start to a conference campaign as a Big 12 member.

Asked if memories of squandered leads from previous losses created crunch-time issues Saturday, McClellan said: "It definitely crosses our mind because we've been there before.... We get relaxed a lot when we have leads. We feel like we can do things we're not supposed to do and it won't hurt us at the end. But at the end, it gets us."

Asked if the Longhorns tend to lose their poise down the stretch in close games, McClellan said: "Most definitely."

McClellan's postgame candor, while refreshing -- and brutally accurate, from all indications -- did not sit well with coach Rick Barnes, who has been preaching a need for more mental toughness in efforts to curb his team's ongoing slump.

Barnes limited McClellan to one minute in Texas' last road game, an 82-62 loss at Iowa State, because of defensive deficiencies and a desire to send a message about being a hungrier team. McClellan did not start Saturday but came off the bench and scored a team-high 18 points in 28 minutes.

How much time he'll get Monday when Texas plays at Oklahoma (12-4, 3-1) in hope of avoiding its first 0-5 start in league play as a Big 12 member remains unclear.

Barnes cited McClellan's admission of negative thoughts in crunch time as reason to have his star player join him on the bench in those situations.

"If that's what's going through your mind, you shouldn't be on the floor," Barnes said. "Because there's other guys over there that I don't think are thinking that way. That's mental toughness. That's exactly what we're talking about. ... It's winning time. You can't have guys thinking that way. If that's what he's thinking, you can't be out there."

But there's no denying blown leads are becoming a habit for Texas, which has dropped three games in overtime and lost two others by five or fewer points. Texas has squandered second-half leads in recent losses to Kansas (11 points), West Virginia (13 points) and UCLA (8 points).

For much of Saturday's game against the Jayhawks (16-1, 4-0), McClellan's shooting -- 8 of 18, including 2 of 5 from beyond the arc -- as well as the contributions of Julien Lewis (11 points, seven rebounds) and Jonathan Holmes (10 points) -- kept Texas in position to pull off an upset.

Texas grabbed an early lead with a first-half salvo of 3-pointers, seized control of the game with a 12-0 spurt in the second half and still maintained a double-digit advantage, 47-37, with 11:22 remaining. But the Longhorns closed with seven of their 14 turnovers down the stretch, struggled with free throws (2 of 8 for the game) and self-destructed when Kansas turned up the heat with its pressure defense.

A decisive, 15-4 closing run gave Kansas a 62-57 lead heading into the final minute, and Texas could not answer in crunch time. Again.

"We've been toe-to-toe with all the teams that are supposed to be the best and we end up not closing the game out," said Holmes, who played only 14 minutes before fouling out. "You can't take too much of a positive [from a close loss to Kansas] because we've been doing this all year."

Because of the team's youth -- Texas played six freshmen and four sophomores in its 10-player rotation against Kansas, which starts four seniors -- the Longhorns are more mistake-prone than most teams. Mix in the absence of point guard Myck Kabongo, the team's best player, until Feb. 13 because of NCAA sanctions, and there are compelling reasons why the Longhorns head to Oklahoma in danger of hitting a historic low in the Big 12 era.

"That's the youngest team in the country out there playing. And they're going to be really, really good," Kansas coach Bill Self said of the Longhorns. "I think they took some big steps forward to playing well today."

But not enough to satisfy Barnes, who is getting tired of the inconsistencies but insists he will not lose this team mentally.

"I can assure you of this: We've got enough that would never, ever think about quitting," Barnes said. "We do a lot of things well. But we don't win because we don't consistently do it when the game's on the line."

Saturday's loss to Kansas is merely the latest example.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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