Longhorns standing tall in Big 12

AUSTIN, Texas -- Midway through the first half came a play that defined not just Texas' 81-69 victory over Kansas, but the Longhorns' season.

Texas guard Isaiah Taylor continued his dribble and crashed into Kansas center Joel Embiid after a reaching foul had already been called. Embiid tried to snatch the ball away, and, as Taylor jerked it away, it sailed out of bounds.

The brief physical exchange left the 6-foot-1 Taylor standing toe-to-toe and jawing in the face of the Jayhawks’ 7-footer.

Taylor made it clear he wasn’t backing down.

Neither was Texas.

Following Taylor’s lead, Texas brought the fight to Kansas.

The Longhorns don’t have a roster full of projected NBA first-round picks, but they have toughness. And it will carry them to more marquee wins like Saturday's.

"I felt like Texas was the hungrier team today," Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Starting with Taylor. His energy seemed to ignite the Longhorns, and his quickness confounded Kansas defenders. Taylor had one of his best performances of the season with a game-high 23 points.

"They say that the offensive tempo and defensive tempo ends and starts with me," Taylor said. "Just knowing that they encourage me to do that, it helps my team and it helps my confidence."

While Self said the Longhorns were hungrier Saturday, guard Demarcus Holland said they've been that way for a while now.

They know how fast things can turn. Texas started Big 12 play with consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and flirted with a third loss at Texas Tech before squeezing out a victory. Now that the Horns have won four in a row over ranked teams and, at 6-2, sit one game behind Kansas for first place, Holland said there was no room for complacency.

"We don’t think we’re better than what we are," Holland said. "We know who we are as a team; we know what we have to get better at. We’re not going to let it get to our heads or anything like that."

Texas coach Rick Barnes won’t let it, or more three-hour practices will be in the forecast.

With a week off between games, Barnes allowed the team to have Sunday and Monday off after their victory over Baylor last Saturday. Barnes noted that the team hasn't "responded well to two days off."

Right on cue, the players returned to the court Tuesday and were flat and listless. Instead of allowing them to stay that way, Barnes kept the team practicing until two hours became three. At a time of the season when he normally tapers off hard practices, it sent a message.

"I didn’t feel like we were getting done what we needed to get done," Barnes said. "You’re always tweaking and adding some things, but it was more just the mental side of it."

The Longhorns responded to Barnes' prompting. Thursday’s practice was back at the level Barnes expected, and it carried over into their game against the Jayhawks.

Texas held the Jayhawks to 38.5 percent shooting from the floor, which was second only to 29.8 percent in a loss to San Diego State as Kansas' worst percentage of the season. The Longhorns frustrated Andrew Wiggins, who was coming off a career-best 29 points against Iowa State. The freshman star missed his first nine shots from the floor and finished with seven points on 2-of-12 shooting.

"That was definitely the toughest team we’ve played, probably even some of our [nonconference] games we had," Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe said.

Texas' toughness comes from getting contributions from seemingly whoever is in the lineup.

Jonathan Holmes added to Taylor's scoring outburst with 22 points of his own. Holland tied a career-high with 11 rebounds and Cameron Ridley added 10. Ridley and Prince Ibeh also had four blocks each as the Longhorns' 12 blocks tied a season high.

"We’re not just counting on one guy," Barnes said. "We’ve had different guys at different times do different things to help us win, and that’s what has been the beauty of this group."

Depends on who is doing the viewing. Holland said the beauty was in knowing there is more to come.

"The best thing about it is we know we haven’t peaked yet," Holland said. "We still have a lot of room to get better, and we’re looking forward to it."