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December 2, 2013

Longhorns hold on to beat Vanderbilt

The Longhorns (7-1) flirted with a meltdown, received multiple free drinks from it, but somehow sent it home alone Monday night. Despite an abysmal performance at the free throw line (15-of-29; 1-of-8 from the 10-minute mark until one minute remaining) Texas was able to hold on and knock off Vanderbilt (4-3) 70-64.

It was the fifth contest this season decided by 10 points or less, and the Longhorns improved to 4-1 in those games. When Texas needed to make plays with the game on the line, it did. Some thoughts:

1) What do you say about the free-throw shooting? The odd thing is that Vanderbilt entered the game as a worse team, barely, at the line than Texas. And another odd thing is that the Texas guards combined to shoot 9-of-20 at the free-throw line.

After the game, Rick Barnes mentioned that he noticed some guys not sticking to their usual routines and that he told the players to show some swagger and confidence in that area down the stretch.

"We're better than that. We really are," Barnes said about the free-throw shooting. "But that's part of the game. My whole thing with free-throw shooting is the routine. Just take care of the routine and you'll live with the results. I know every one of [their] routines, and they didn't' take care of it. If you miss it, you have to let it go and get back to your routine."

Whatever it was, it nearly caused Texas to meltdown and blow what was a 62-54 lead with just over a minute left.

2) Isaiah Taylor's floater game was on point tonight, and the freshman converted on two huge ones, including one with a foul and a made free throw, on back-to-back possessions down the stretch to make it 62-54. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting (2-of-5 from the free-throw line), eight assists, just two turnovers (one was a very questionable charge call) and five rebounds.

You can see Taylor's confidence continuing to grow, and he's playing with the aggressiveness and effort Barnes asks him to play with. The point guard is also doing a better job of controlling pace and is improving at knowing when to push it as fast as he can and when to slow things down.

"I think coach Barnes believes in me as a player now, and down the stretch I want the ball in my hands," Taylor said after the win. "I think my teammates trust me with the ball in my hands down the stretch. It wasn't so much that I had to takeover; it was just doing what I had to do to win. I've been earning his trust as the season went along. Coming in it was hard. Down the stretch, I would like the ball in my hands as one of the leaders on this team. The situations down the stretch… it was hard."

Barnes mentioned that after the UT Arlington game he was pretty tough on Taylor, and liked how he responded.

"Isaiah got the brunt of the teaching, if that's what you want to call it. I think he came back and responded with some things I asked him to do, and he did them," Barnes said. "Isaiah… he's tough. What I mean by tough - I like guys… I'm going to get on guys. I like guys that can take it and go on. One of the things that I told him before the game was that I don't ever want him to relax. He's quick. He's fearless. He really is a good layup-maker. He's learning."

3) Vanderbilt did a pretty good job of aggressively playing in front of Cameron Ridley down low, which prevented some looks inside. At times, this caused Texas to become stagnant some on offense, but at other times it aggressively attacked off the dribble from the wings like it should have in order to open things up.

With the way Ridley has been playing lately, Texas is going to have to get used to teams really working hard to take him away, especially when he gets established early like he did against Vanderbilt.

4) Texas had five players score nine or more points and six players grab five or more rebounds. Texas used a pretty short bench - Damarcus Croaker, Martez Walker, and Prince Ibeh combined to play just 17 minutes - but it got a complete effort from the players it used extensively.

5) After a very sluggish performance against UT Arlington, I felt like Javan Felix responded with a very solid performance, and one the type that would be just fine for Texas on a consistent basis. The sophomore started the Vanderbilt game looking out of sync and like he was thinking too much. However, he quickly bounced back and made some big shots.

Felix correctly sprinted to the corner in transition, and knocked down a big three-pointer at one point, and finished 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. With a 4-of-8 performance, which included two huge free throws to make it 65-62 with 24 seconds left, from the floor and 12 points, the sophomore was the shot-maker Texas needs him to be in its offense.

6) Vanderbilt entered the game as a strong team from beyond the arc offensively (84th nationally) and the Longhorns held it to 5-of-21 from deep. Texas did a good job of aggressively closing out on shooters, and inviting them to put the ball on the floor. There were a couple of times late when Vanderbilt big men that can knock down shots from deep decided to pump fake at the hard closeout and take a contested mid-range jumper or an off-balanced floater instead of firing away. That's exactly what Texas wanted.

7) Although he missed four straight free throws in a key situation, Kendal Yancy continues to show improvement and confidence on the floor. The freshman scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the floor, grabbed six rebounds, and played solid defense. Not only did Yancy once again attack off-the-dribble from the wing, he also buried his only three-pointer attempted when he confidently shot a ball quickly off of a nice dish before the rotation could get to him.

8) Texas went with a lot of man-to-man defensively, and it did a pretty good job at defending an offense that used a lot of screens and constant movement. Plus, Vanderbilt had multiple big men that could step outside and hit jumpers which forced players like Ridley, Holmes, and Lammert to play away from the rim some.

Vanderbilt entered the game as the No. 54 team in the country at effective field goal percentage, and Texas held it to 37.9 shooting from the floor.

9) It is worth the price of admission just to watch the effort Holmes and Holland bring each night. It's not a surprise anymore to see Holmes diving on the floor for the rock or wrestling an offensive rebound out of a pile of four people.

Heck, it's worth the price of admission just to watch how hard Texas plays on a pretty consistent basis.

10) The Longhorns are now 7-1 and will go on the road for their first true road game at Temple this Saturday. It's still tough to decide if this start means the Longhorns can hang around in the Big 12, but this start has proven that the team plays hard, likes each other, can handle some adversity, is coachable, and has a much better chance to actually improve compared to last year's disaster of a team.

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