Tuesday, March 25, 2003

A Ford drives top-seeded Texas to San Antonio

By Ben Walker
The Associated Press

Ready for a big crowd wearing burnt orange, the Texas Longhorns are heading home. Well, 80 miles from home, but that's close enough.

"It's going to be loud," Texas point T.J. Ford said. "It's going to feel like we're in our own building."

The top-seeded Longhorns play Connecticut in San Antonio on Friday night in the South Regional semifinals.

No team left in the tournament will be as close to its campus as the Longhorns are. Syracuse, also near home and with fans decked out in orange, plays 135 miles away in Albany, N.Y., site of the East Regional.

Texas went 14-0 at home this season, but Longhorns forward Brian Boddicker wonders how much geography means at this stage.

"When you come to this time, the teams are so good and there's so much on the line, I don't think it's going to have a big impact on the game," he said.

A bigger impact may be Ford, regarded by some as the best guard in college basketball. Ford turned 20 on Monday and got an early start on his birthday, taking over in the second half to lead the Longhorns over Purdue 77-67 Sunday.

Ford scored 21 points and had nine rebounds and eight assists. He stayed out of trouble after picking up two quick fouls seven minutes into the game, and really accelerated after halftime.

Ford thinks Texas' tough regular-season schedule, which included losses to Notre Dame and Arizona, will pay dividends.

"It all goes back to the strength of our schedule and the games we lost early in the year- everyone learning from those games." he said. "You'd rather lose then and learn than lose them now."

The Longhorns reached the round of 16 for the second straight year, a first for the program.

Texas (24-6) and fifth-seeded Connecticut (23-9) have played four times but never in the NCAAs. The Longhorns posted their only win in the series the last time they met, on Jan. 15, 2001, beating the Huskies 60-56 at home.

Barnes doesn't think the crowd in San Antonio will shake UConn.

"They've been in a lot of hostile situations," he said. "They are a tough team."

The 5-foot-10 Ford is tough, all right. He's also amazingly fast, and he had the ball in his hands throughout the second half. During a four-minute span where Texas scored 18 points, 16 came by Ford or were set up by his passes.

Texas led just 69-67 with 2:01 left. Then Ford made two foul shots as the Longhorns scored the last eight points.

"We've been in that situation a lot this year," Ford said. "The last four minutes of the game is when you know you've got to protect the ball and get good shots."

Ford spent the last few seconds dribbling out the clock. Only then did he give it up, spiking the ball near midcourt at the buzzer.

"We took care of business here by winning these two rounds," guard Royal Ivey said. "Next up is San Antonio, which is going to be fun."

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