It was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves, it was the age of offensive efficiency, it was the age of offensive futility, it was the spring of hoping for a top 5 Big 12 seed, it was the winter of despairing about an NIT bid -- in short, the second period was so far unlike the first period that I wouldn't have blamed you for harnessing your inner Madame Defarge and thrown your remote through your television screen in disgust, obliviously unaware to how the second half unfolded.
It was a tale of two halves for the Longhorns, the first illustriously bad to ugly, the second almost nothing but good. At the 8:56 minute of the first half, J'Covan Brown hit a jumper to put Texas up 21-19. The Longhorns wouldn't make another field goal for the rest of the first half, and went into the locker room down 40-27. At that point, Kansas State's win probability was 80%, and Longhorn fans everywhere probably felt it was a heck of a lot higher than that.
Almost amazingly, Texas started the second half by going on a 16-4 run to claw within 1, 44-43. Even more improbably, after the Wildcats withstood the Longhorn surge and pushed the lead back up to 6, Texas took the lead with 8:25 left on a Brown 3-pointer. And to cap off the mind-boggling half, Texas ran away with the game in the final minutes, pushing the lead to double digits and putting down the Cats.
It was an amazing second half of play, and one that, if the Horns can replicate over a full game, should scare the bejeebus out of Big 12 opponents.
The Benching of Myck Kabongo: First half bad, second half good. I'll be honest, I thought the game was over at the end of the first half, mostly because of Rick Barnes' stubborn insistence to bench his starters that pick up two first half fouls, no matter what. Kabongo picked up his second foul at the 9:48 mark, with Texas up 19-18...and sat...and sat...and sat. At that point, Kabongo had been flat out abusing Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling offensively. After his benching, the Longhorns offense ground to a standstill, and Kansas St. outscored Texas 21-9. I didn't understand at all why Barnes was willing to let the first half get out of control because he couldn't trust his point guard not to pick up a third foul.
Of course, Kabongo picked up that third foul just 3 minutes into the second half, with Texas down 44-32. This time, the other Texas guards responded. It sure looked like Barnes slightly tweaked the offense, squeezing Brown and Lewis closer together at the top of the key and showing dual ball-handlers to confuse the Wildcat defense. Sheldon McClellan, who could hardly buy a free throw in the first half, saw the light go on and scored 8 points in 5 minutes. Brown, disappointingly unassertive in the first half, started creating and making plays in the second. And thus, Texas made its run sans Kabongo. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it.
Alexis Wangmene's Best Game: The only bright spot in an otherwise dismal first half was the stellar play of Alexis Wangmene. Clint Chapman, Jonathan Holmes, and Jaylen Bond all picked up two fouls in the first half (Bond picked up three), leaving Wangmene as Texas' only hope on the interior. He responded in a big way, playing ridiculously good defense headlined by a thunderous block on Spradling. Wangmene was even better in the second half, and finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds in his best game as a Longhorn. It was Wangmene's first career double-double, and it came when the Horns most needed it. Kudos to the fiery senior for stepping up.
Rodney McGruder on Defense: First half good, second half bad. Frank Martin's game plan appeared to be: bludgeon Texas inside, and shut down J'Covan Brown. On the former, Martin mercilessly rotated in his big men to pick up fouls and and send the Texas bigs to the bench. Wangmene had other ideas (see above). On the latter, Martin stuck McGruder on Brown like white on rice, hoping that McGruder's long wingspan and large strides would frustrate Texas' only superior offensive weapon. In the first half, Brown couldn't shake McGruder and the plan seemed to be working. But in the second half, McGruder looked significantly fatigued, while Brown, who had been guarding Spradling and Rodriguez, started to bloom. It appeared to be a case of overthinking for Martin, who should have just remembered that McGruder scored 33 points on the Horns during the first game and let Sir Rodney go crazy on offense. Instead, McGruder attempted just 9 shots on offense, scoring 11 points.
Free Throw Disparity: It got ugly for Kansas State. Texas shot an incredible 48 free throws, hitting 35 of them, while Kansas State attempted just 12. Fran Fraschilla, ESPN's consistently excellent color announcer, kept pointing out that the referees were correctly controlling physical play, and that the players needed to adjust. Texas did, Kansas State didn't. The free throw disparity was completely legitimate, and if Wildcats fans are looking for blame assignment, I suggest looking at the hack-a-Horn gameplan.
Team Effort: While Wangmene gets the game ball, it was truly a great team effort responsible for the comeback. McCllelan's 7 rebounds were huge. Chapman's 3 blocks. Bond buying first half minutes despite playing with 3 fouls. Lewis' tenacious defense on McGruder. Kabongo's repeatedly blowing by his defender to free open shooters. And Brown, leading the way yet again 15 of his total 23 points in the second half to will the Horns to victory.
Looking Forward: The road to 10 conference wins now looks clear for the Longhorns. First up is the road trip to our friends from the north. Texas plays Oklahoma tomorrow and Oklahoma State on Saturday. Tell them winter is coming. If Texas can win those two, as well as a game at Texas Tech and a return trip from the Sooners, the Longhorns will hit the coveted 10 win mark. Swing games vs. Baylor and at Kansas will then define the season. The close win in College Station and the huge second half against Kansas State have injected huge shots of confidence into the Longhorns, and hopefully will propel Texas to finishing the regular season on a high note.