NASHVILLE, TN--Even in the NCAA Tournament, Texas couldn't escape its biggest weakness: winning close games.
The eleventh-seeded Longhorns lost to sixth-seeded Cincinnati, 65-59, on Friday at Bridgestone Arena in the second round of the tournament. The loss dropped Texas to 3-9 in games decided by six points or fewer.
Texas erased a 19 point second half deficit and tied the game at 52 with 3:44 to play. But the Bearcats answered with six straight points. The Longhorns trailed by four with one minute left but couldn't convert when they needed to.
"We had two chances to take the lead but it's where our season has been: turnover, not a very good shot," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "We made some poor decisions with the ball."
Texas played like it had all season: a slow start followed by a late rally, capped off with questionable execution down the stretch.
The Bearcats relaxed on the defensive end after building a sizeable lead. But they made all the plays in the closing minutes to fend off UT.
"We are more comfortable playing if it’s a close game," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. "We don't know how to play with those big leads."
The Longhorns trailed, 38-19, with four minutes gone in the second half before finding their shooting touch. Texas closed to 49-46 with a 30-8 run over the next 10 minutes.
Sheldon McClellan scored all 10 of his points during the run to spark the comeback. Julien Lewis added eight points during that stretch. The freshman guard finished with 14.
"They finally came through big time when I wasn't hitting shots," said leading scorer J'Covan Brown, who went 6 of 15 from the field. "I just told them to keep being aggressive. They put up numbers for us."
Those numbers weren't there in the first half, though.
The Longhorns trailed, 31-17, at the break. It was Texas' lowest scoring half of the season. UT missed 13 of its first 14 shots as Cincinnati built an early 16-2 advantage.
"We were just inept offensively at the start of the game," Barnes said. "(Cincinnati) came out very aggressive and we turned the ball over and started pressing a little bit. We missed a lot of shots at the rim when we were able to get the ball up there and shoot it. It was painful to watch."
The Longhorns went 11:56 without a field goal and trailed by as many 15 in the half. UT turned the ball over six times against one assist.
"That drought isn't something that we have experienced as a team," said senior forward Clint Chapman.
Texas regrouped in the second half and found a rhythm. The Longhorns, though, stalled once they closed the gap.
"We started moving the ball and playing as a team, instead of one shot or driving into traffic, then when we (tied it) we reverted back to standing and not making the extra pass," Barnes said.
The furious second half rally after an ugly first half made the loss tougher for the Longhorns to swallow.
"We should have won this game," Barnes said.
Cincinnati dominated the post against a shorthanded Texas front line and had a 40-20 edge in points in the paint. Yancy Gates led the Bearcats with 15 points and 10 rebounds. The senior forward put the game out of reach with a jump shot to give UC a 58-52 lead with 1:11 left.
"We wanted to force that shot and I tried to contest it but he knocked it down," said Chapman, who compared Gates to Baylor's Quincy Acy.
Chapman wrapped up his senior season with a career-high 14 rebounds. He added 10 points and four blocks.
Brown led Texas with 19 points and six assists. It was the first time in four career NCAA Tournament games that the junior did not score at least 20 points.
The Longhorns lost their opening-round game for the second time in the last seven years. Texas' last early exit came in 2010 against ninth-seeded Wake Forest in New Orleans.
After the game, Brown would not address his plans on returning to school for his senior season or entering the NBA Draft in June.
When asked if the game was his last in a Longhorns' uniform, Brown responded: "I'm not going to answer that question."
"I'm going to make the decision," he added. "I'm going to talk to Coach, I'm going to talk to my parents and see what the best thing is for me. I'm not worried about moving on right now. I'm going to cherish this moment right now."