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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Commentary

CBI win proves bigger than basketball


The Cougars' top four scorers, including Danuel House, are either a freshman or sophomore. | Justin Tijerina/ The Daily Cougar

The Cougars’ top four scorers, including Danuel House, are either a freshman or sophomore. | Justin Tijerina/ The Daily Cougar

UH and Texas aspired to be a part of the NCAA tournament in November, but both underperformed and wound up in the College Basketball Invitational, a six-year, 16-team tournament airing on Mark Cuban’s new AXS TV network.

But Wednesday’s game was bigger than the CBI.

This tilt was about rivalry and birthright; it was about which team can rightfully lay claim to the Best in Texas title.

On Wednesday, UH was that team.

Dating back to 1976, when the Cougars joined the Southwest Conference, Texas and UH had a storied history of basketball competition, which continued until 1996 when Texas left for the newly-formed Big 12, leaving UH on the outside looking in.

In the 52 SWC games between Texas and UH, the Cougars won the series 28-24.

During that period, UH employed legendary head coach Guy V. Lewis, who was recently nominated as a Naismith Hall of Fame finalist, and fielded such luminaries as Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Otis Birdsong and made the Final Four on three occasions, advancing to the NCAA championship game twice.

That was a long time ago though.

The Cougars have struggled at times this year with losses to Prairie View A&M, Rice, UCF and a disappointing early exit in the Conference USA tournament against UTEP. When given a one-and-done shot at the big-name program that has seen LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin taken in the NBA draft recently, the Cougars notched a satisfying victory against their former conference foe to even the all-time series at 32 wins apiece.

In response to criticism about the perceived inelegance of the Cougars’ above-the-rim style attack, Lewis once said, “I like the dunk. It’s a high percentage shot.”

The Cougars, despite the setbacks and adversity, took Lewis’ advice to heart, scoring first on an alley-oop pass from redshirt sophomore guard Joe Young to freshman forward Danuel House for a rim-rattling slam that set the tone for the night.

“We knew that if we punched them off early that we could sustain their run,” House said. “Our main focus was to punch them before they punched us. That dunk just punched them, and our momentum just went through the roof after that.”

The Cougars powered their momentum by muscling for position and battling for boards during the win against Texas, whose appearance in the CBI this year broke a 14-year consecutive string of NCAA tournament bids.

“We came out with a lot of emotion, which you need in a game like this. We were a big physical team,” said head coach James Dickey. “We knew the game was going to be about energy, defense, rebounding and toughness. We got off to a terrific start.”

The start propelled the Cougars to a 22-11 advantage on a Young jumper after the first eight and a half minutes of play.

Then it became a fight.

Over the course of the contest, the Cougars and Longhorns tied or exchanged leads 17 times. It was the sort of game that tests endurance and mettle.

The Cougars won as a team. They played as a single unit, with singular purpose by communicating and adjusting to one another in the artful synthesis of disparate parts that makes basketball beautiful to watch. They battled. They fought. And in the biggest moments, someone was there to step up and contribute.

“One thing I hope our guys learned from this game … is how fine of a line it is between winning and losing,” said Texas head coach Rick Barnes. “It goes back to listening, where guys haven’t understood exactly what they need to do to be part of a team. They don’t understand how a team comes together.”

UH had a balanced attack with four players scoring in double figures plus timely contributions from redshirt freshman LeRon Barnes, who was a perfect 4-4 from the floor for eight points off the bench.

Sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas notched his 15th double-double of the season with 15 points on 6-12 shooting and 10 rebounds.

Senior forward and veteran leader Leon Gibson posted 11 points, six rebounds, and also got into the spirit of the evening. He channeled Phi Slama Jama with a posterizing of Texas freshman center Prince Ibeh. The dunk gave UH a 64-62 lead with five minutes remaining in regulation and gave the home crowd reason to leap to roar their approval.

Young was the only Cougar accurate from behind the arc at times, hitting four of his nine three-point attempts and racking up five assists to go with his team-high 18 points.

With less than 40 seconds remaining, Young put the ball in the hands of House. House, calmly – almost like he was born to do it – raised up and stroked a 12-foot elbow jumper that found the bottom of the net, just as every one of the 4,407 in attendance knew it would from the second it left his hands. With 17 seconds left to play, the Cougars had a one point lead on their old SWC rival.

On Texas’ final possession, sophomore guard Julien Lewis played like he felt the full weight of the enmity, the Big 12 jilting, the big-brother little-brother discord on his own shoulders.

So with 11 seconds left to play, it was Lewis with the last shot. Down by one, any made shot would seal it for the Longhorns. He was efficient on offense, scoring his game-high 25 on 10-19 shooting from the floor, 3-6 from deep. He was a perfect 2-2 from the charity stripe, grabbed four boards and tallied one assist, one block and one steal.

And then everything could go back to the way things were supposed to be. But it didn’t because Lewis missed it.

“We couldn’t get a better shot,” Barnes said. “We got what we wanted. You have to take the shot. If you miss it, you miss it.”

There is no record of a last-second shot by Young, though there was an attempt, and it drew back iron, though it was hurled from nearly half-court. Drunk on the frenzy of the crowd, Young can perhaps be forgiven for his exuberance.

The significance of the matchup, the battle for Texas basketball dominance it might be said, and the first meeting of the two not-entirely-friendly neighbors in 13 years, was not lost on any of the Cougars.

“I know having been in the old Southwest Conference for years and having not played Texas for 13 years, this was a big game for our fans,” Dickey said. “Back in the SWC, it was always a big game.”

Young summed it up perfectly.

“It’s a big time win for our students, fans, alumni and for the University,” he said. “Coach Dickey had us in the gym since we had found out we were playing Texas. We took it, practiced hard and got the win.”

While many have noted that the last matchup between 13 years ago was a lopsided road win for the Longhorns, the Cougars won 58-50 on March 13, 1993 in Dallas — the last time the two teams met in a postseason game.

“We came out with a lot of emotion, which you need in a game like this,” Dickey said.

The Cougars go on to play George Mason University, whom some might remember from their “Cinderella” 2006 run to the Final Four, on Monday.

The Longhorns go home to Austin. Until they meet again – perhaps not for another 12 or 13 years if Texas continues in the fashion it pleases – they do so with the knowledge that they were not the best team in Texas on Wednesday.

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