AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas found itself in an unlikely spot after 13 straight years of walking into the NCAA Tournament. The Longhorns needed a win Saturday against Kansas State just to stay in the hunt for a bid.
Texas also found itself an unlikely player to help it to at least a stay of execution -- Alexis Wangmene.
The senior had a career high in points (15) and rebounds (13) and his first career double-double as the Longhorns came from 15 down in the second half to beat the Wildcats, 75-64 in front of 14,640 fans at the Frank Erwin Center.
Texas (16-9, 6-6) has now ripped off three straight wins after struggling through a 3-6 January. Texas' .500 Big 12 record, along with quality wins over KSU, Iowa State and Temple, could be enough to secure that spot in a 14th straight NCAA tournament. Of course that is contingent upon Texas at least remaining level as it moves through the last six games of the conference schedule.
Given that the Longhorns play Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma (twice) all teams with less than .500 conference records as well as a reeling Baylor at the Frank Erwin Center, remaining inside the bubble at least seems plausible. If Texas continues to play the way it did in the second half against the Wildcats, it seems probable.
In that 20 minutes, the Longhorns scored 48 -- the highest one half output of the conference season -- and held KSU to half that number.
“They came out in the second half and they punched us in the mouth and they punched us again and again and again and they got us on the ropes and we never punched back,” KSU coach Frank Martin said. “To do that will all those freshmen was impressive.”
But it was a senior, Wangmene, who might have been learned more in the past week and in the KSU game than any of the freshmen. Following the Texas A&M game, Texas coach Rick Barnes pulled his senior post player aside and tried to motivate him.
“What I don't understand about you is when we really challenge you to get up against guys that can play, you really take that challenge on,” Barnes told Wangmene.
“Why don't you do that all the time regardless of who you are playing? Why don't you do that? You really can change the way the game is played all the time.”
Wangmene did change how Kansas State went about its game. Because of Wangmene's interior defense, KSU was forced into a one-on-one offense in the second half. As the Wildcats became stagnant, Texas started to find its rhythm on the offensive end.
The Longhorns gave up the first bucket of the second half but followed that with a 16-2 run.
“We didn't panic,” point guard Myck Kabongo said. “We have guys that can make plays on this team.”
J'Covan Brown would be that guy. His 3-pointer that put the Longhorns up 56-54 capped a run where he scored 8 of 11 Texas points. The Longhorns never trailed again. Actually they were never even threatened. With the officials all over the whistle -- Texas shot 28 free throws to KSU's 0 in the second half -- Texas just continued to stay aggressive, attack the rim and build its lead. It also continued to force KSU into quick possessions and poor shots.
“They did to us what we have done to other people,” Martin said. “They defensively crawled up in us and completely took us out of anything we wanted to do.”
Now what Texas has to do is go on the road and try to pick up two crucial games at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. A loss to either team could put Texas back out of the NCAA Tournament.