NEW ORLEANS — The Longhorns’ final loss of the season, an 81-80 overtime heartbreaker to Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday, was indicative of their entire year, complete with missed free throws and missed layups.
Rebounds were an issue as well.
Wake Forest outrebounded Texas 59-34, which was uncharacteristic of a team that prides itself on defense and has the Big 12’s career-leading rebounder, Damion James (350 this season, 1,318 career). James only had six total rebounds in his final game as a Longhorn — zero coming in the first half.
“We just got pounded on the glass,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “I don’t remember us getting outrebounded ever like this. I really don’t.”
The Longhorns came back from an 11-point deficit in the first half to take a 38-37 halftime lead, but in the first five minutes of the second half, the Demon Deacons made a 17-4 run, giving them a 54-42 lead.
After scoring 16 points in the first half, freshman Jordan Hamilton was on the bench as Wake Forest went on their run. Barnes said Wake Forest had adjusted its defense accordingly at halftime, which affected Hamilton emotionally.
“You know, he just broke down a little, mentally,” Barnes said. “We had to get him calmed down before he went back in.”
Hamilton only took three shots in the second half and finished with 19 points.
With about nine minutes remaining in the game, James and Dexter Pittman came up with pivotal free throws to bring Texas within four points, 56-52.
At that point, Texas got into a groove. James responded to every Wake Forest basket with one of his own, J’Covan Brown — who only played three minutes in the first half but led his team in scoring with 20 points — made crucial shots and free throws and Avery Bradley caused Demon Deacon turnovers and made them pay with fast-break layups.
With 49.3 seconds left in regulation, Brown hit a tying trey to make the score 67-all.
At the nine-second mark, Wake Forest was up by one point and James was sent to the free-throw line. He made the first, tying the game at 68, then missed the second — a shot that might have secured a Texas win. Wake got the rebound and sprinted down the court. James hustled back on defense, got the ball back and attempted a half-court shot for the win, but it went wide right.
In overtime, Brown and Hamilton hit huge 3-pointers to give Texas an eight-point lead of 76-68 with three minutes left.
But Wake remained poised. Coach Dino Guadio reminded his players of the four other times this season — against Xavier, Richmond, Maryland and Virginia — where they won in overtime.
“When you watch overtime games, when a team gets down by four or more, they start looking at the clock, feeling sorry for themselves,” Wake Forest guard Ishmael Smith said. “Coach [Guardio] told us to keep getting stops, keep getting stops like we did in overtime games earlier this season. We did and got a big win.”
Ultimately, missed free throws down the stretch were the Longhorns’ demise. Brown missed two that would have given Texas an 80-74 edge with 49.6 seconds left, and Gary Johnson missed two that would have put Texas up 82- 79 with nine seconds left.
“I couldn’t believe that I missed them,” Brown said.
Wake Forest took advantage of the Longhorns’ mistakes by making its free throws during overtime. A huge 3-pointer by Ari Stewart, which put Wake Forest within one point before Johnson missed his free throws, helped too.
That created an ideal situation for Smith, who almost had a triple-double with 19 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. He got the ball with 1.3 seconds left and made an 18-foot pull-up jumper to win it, 81-80.
“There was no one else I’d rather take that shot,” Guadio said. “If you look at Ishmael’s stats, look at his ACC three-point shooting stats — oh, they’re not very good. When you look at his free throws, not very good. If I took him out there right now, he wouldn’t make three straight 3s if we shot 100 of them. But that kid makes big shots.”
Texas finished the season going 556-of-878 from the foul line — 63.3 percent overall. That marks Texas’ worst year from the line since the 1953-54 season, where it shot 60.4 percent.
James had one of his poorer performances of the season against Wake Forest. He scored just 16 points, going 4-of-14 from the field, 1-of-7 from 3-point range and 7-of-8 from the foul line. Pittman didn’t come up big in his final collegiate game, either. He scored just five points, grabbed eight rebounds and sat on the bench for the entire overtime period with four fouls.
“Everyone is disappointed, but I told them they’ve got to remember this feeling,” Barnes said. “It’s been a tough road lately, but I tell them to never look back. Never take for granted getting into this tournament.”