Sunday, April 6, 2003

Texas couldn't break the Syracuse zone

By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS - Texas thought it had the tools to break down the vaunted Syracuse zone: penetration, rebounding and outside shooting.

All them worked for a while against the Orangemen - Texas scored 85 points, the most Syracuse had given up during the NCAA tournament - but rarely did all of them work together.

And the bench strength Texas counted on for so many big shots and rebounds over the course of the season was nowhere to be found when it mattered most.

All-American point guard T.J. Ford was solid in spurts - he finished with 12 points and 13 assists - but he couldn't grab control of the game.

Brandon Mouton was brilliant with 20 first-half points. Floppy-haired freshman Brad Buckman provided a spark inside with 14 points.

But Texas never got the decisive run it needed in its first Final Four in 56 years.

"They were able to keep control," Ford said. "Each half, there was always something missing."

Ford is one of the craftiest guards in the country at dribbling around defenders to find that last-second assist. On this night, though, he struggled to find the gaps in what coach Rick Barnes earlier in the week had called "the perfect zone."

When Ford kicked it out, Mouton hit for four 3-pointers in the first half. It worked for a while until the Orangemen simply stretched the zone and denied the shot, limiting him to just five points the rest of the way.

"They did a good job of finding me in the second half," Mouton said.

When that happened, Ford went inside to Buckman, who hit all five of his shots from the floor in the first half. But even that only lasted until Buckman fouled out in the second half.

"Mouton gets on fire early on, but then coming down the stretch we missed a lot of shots that should have gone in," Buckman said.

Ford, often so cool in the clutch, looked frustrated, and early foul trouble sent him to the bench for nearly six minutes of the first half. He sat there with his arms crossed and a towel draped over his leg - and watched.

Texas got only 16 points from a bench that went 10 players deep all season. Brian Boddicker had 12 points, most of them coming after Syracuse had all but sealed the victory. One of the best 3-point shooters on the team, Boddicker didn't attempt any in the first half.

"I didn't get any looks all night until the end of the game," Boddicker said. "We didn't know exactly what we were doing. Overall, we just didn't attack it the way we wanted."

James Thomas, who averaged a double-double this season while earning a reputation as one of the toughest rebounders in the Big 12, finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. But he went just 5-of-11 from the foul line with several key misses down the stretch as the Longhorns went 20-32 as a team.

Texas briefly held the lead in the second but never got it higher than 61-59. A 7-1 Syracuse run gave the Orangemen the lead for good.

"I thought if maybe we could get a a little lead, it might put a little pressure on them," Barnes said.

But Texas couldn't find the shots, from the floor or the foul line. Ford and Thomas missed jumpers and Boddicker and Thomas went 2-of-6 from the line as Syracuse seized control.

"I think for the first time all year, we really flinched," Thomas said. "All year, we would always come back and we had a lot of great wins, but it just didn't happen for us tonight."

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