SAN ANTONIO - The University of Texas is an 80-mile drive north on Interstate 35 from the Alamodome. It took on the hue of burnt orange and the feel of a raucous Friday night on Austin's Sixth Street, but closing time nearly came early for the Longhorns.
Texas, the No. 1 seed in the South Regional, built a 14-point lead with 12 minutes left, blew it and trailed heading into the last four, but made eight of 10 free throws the rest of the way to escape Connecticut, 82-78, last night in front of 33,009 and a setting that was about as neutral as playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
"I thought the most physical team we played all year was Pittsburgh," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "I will now rearrange that. Clearly, the most physical team we've played is Texas. They bang you inside for 40 minutes and they get after the loose ball."
The loss by the fifth-seeded Huskies left the Big East Conference with an 0-3 record in the Sweet 16, though Syracuse defeated Auburn later last night to make it 1-3. Texas became the third member of the Big 12 to advance to the Elite Eight and will attempt to reach its first Final Four tomorrow, when it takes on Michigan State in the South Regional championship game.
Four minutes after Calhoun was whistled for a technical, Texas (25-6) enjoyed a 62-48 lead with 12:21 left. Four minutes later, Texas guard T.J. Ford sat down with his fourth foul. The Naismith Player of the Year paces the Longhorns, and they went flat without him as Calhoun went to a zone and the Huskies went on a 17-5 run.
"I wasn't going to put him [Ford] in until they tied the game or took the lead," Texas coach Rick Barnes said.
Terrell Ross, a senior out of Meade High and Allegany Community College, ran Texas' offense in Ford's absence. When he returned with 5:31 left, the game was tied at 71, and UConn promptly greeted him with a three-pointer from Ben Gordon that gave the Huskies a 74-71 lead, their first since midway through the first half.
Texas answered with five straight points as Ford fed Brandon Mouton for a 76-74 lead. A put-back by sophomore center Emeka Okafor got the Huskies one last tie at 76, before center James Thomas, wing Royal Ivey and Ford made two free throws apiece to get the victory. UConn's frustration crested with 35.1 seconds left when Marcus White's chance to tie the game wedged against the rim and backboard with the possession arrow in Texas' favor.
Mouton, a junior wing, had a game-high 27 points. James Thomas and Ford had 13 apiece. Ford had seven of his nine assists in the first half and shot a miserable 3-for-15 against UConn's aggressive perimeter defenders.
A 68.1 percent free-throw shooting team, the Huskies (23-10) lost the game at the line, where Texas made 29 of 36 and UConn made just five of 13 in the first half, when it trailed by as many as 11.
It was an unpleasant homecoming for Okafor, whose high school team lost to Ford's in the state 5A tournament two years ago. He complained about being roughed up by Thomas and a deep Longhorn front line before pushing back in the second half, when he got 14 of his 21 points and 11 of his 17 rebounds. Gordon, with 16 points, was the only other Husky in double figures.