Commentary

Johnson and Sooners prove a point in streak-snapping win over Longhorns

Originally Published: January 12, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NORMAN, Okla. -- This wasn't about redemption for a football team or silencing the bitter acrimony that flows through the Red River.

This was personal.

Austin Johnson, Tony Crocker and Willie Warren were tired.

Tired of hearing how Texas had beat them six games in a row. Tired of hearing how, no matter how good Blake Griffin is, the Sooners can't get to the Final Four with the batch of guards they have. And most of all, tired of hearing how Texas -- of all teams, Texas -- would mop up Oklahoma once again because the Sooners didn't have the kind of backcourt that could control A.J. Abrams.

The Big 12 basketball grapevine and college hoops rumor mill darn near percolated with the stuff, with gossip filtering its way across state lines and into the Oklahoma locker room. The Longhorns don't respect you, went the whispers. They figure if they can limit Griffin, there's no way you can win.

Real or fabricated, who knows? The only thing that mattered was that the Sooners gobbled it up like Halloween candy, using the fodder to dig a trench of a chip on their collective shoulder.

The result of this portion of this fierce rivalry wasn't told by the final score, although Oklahoma's 78-63 victory spoke volumes. It was told by four simple words in the box score: Largest lead -- UT, None.

This wasn't so much a game or a victory as it was a grab-you-by-the-throat-and-make-sure-you-notice-me throttling. Johnson scored the first bucket on a drive-by move to the bucket, and the Sooners never took their sneakers off the Longhorns' necks.

[+] EnlargeAustin Johnson
Jerry Laizure/US PresswireIt's been a struggle at times for Austin Johnson, but he was near-perfect against the Horns on Monday.

The 15-point margin of victory served as Oklahoma's largest over a ranked team since 2002 and was the first win over the Longhorns in the Jeff Capel era.

"We knew they didn't have respect for anybody but Blake," Johnson said before grabbing a celebratory dinner with his family. "We knew they thought the guards could outwork us. We had just one day of practice after our game against Kansas State, but that's all we talked about."

Johnson probably has heard it more than anyone. The point guard is more serviceable than flashy, capable of scoring but content passing (and when you have a guy like Griffin anchoring the blocks, it's not exactly a bad option). He leads the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio, at 3.3-to-1, but had hit double figures in scoring just three times this season.

In other words, he is not Abrams, a prolific scorer with lightning-quick speed and an even quicker release who serves as the focal point of the Longhorns' offense.

Yet Johnson remains the key for OU. It is not coincidental that the Sooners are 18-1 over the past two seasons when Johnson scores in double figures.

Johnson scored 15 against Texas on 6-of-9 shooting, and while Abrams bested him with 22 points, Johnson pestered the Longhorns guard into a woeful shooting night. Abrams was just 8-of-27 from the floor, 3-of-15 from behind the arc.

"He makes us a different team," said Capel, who echoed his team's underdog and disrespected sentiment. "I told Austin I believe in him, and I'm not surprised he came through as he did tonight."

It's hard to make a case that Oklahoma is disrespected, given its No. 5 ranking and 16-1 record. But the Sooners regularly are accused of being a one-man show, and since Griffin has put up 14 double-doubles in 17 games, it's a legit accusation.

The fact is, Oklahoma will struggle to get to the Final Four unless its guard play can ease some of the attention and tension on Griffin. The guards have been good in spurts, but they need to be good consistently -- perhaps finding reasons to hate Texas A&M, Nebraska, Baylor and the rest of the Big 12 is in order? -- so Griffin can get a little breathing room.

The Longhorns have a stable of big men who would make football coach Mack Brown salivate, and they kept rotating them in on an exhausted Griffin, who played 39 minutes and (in a sun-rose-today moment) finished with yet another double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds).

But the constant double-teams left guards open for pass-outs from the post, and Griffin is nothing if not a savvy player. He gladly tossed the ball to the open man, with Warren chipping in 17 and Crocker 16.

"When they play like this, they're hard to beat," Texas coach Rick Barnes said.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Griffin
Jerry Laizure/US PresswireSenior Taylor Griffin helped end OU's six-game losing streak to rival Texas.

Texas threatened just once, cutting the score to 54-50 with 11:17 to play. The threat was short-lived, however. Taylor Griffin stuffed Damion James, igniting a fast break that Warren finished with a drive to the hoop. Griffin scored on a turnaround and then, after Abrams missed, Crocker finished at the other end, collecting one of his nine rebounds for the score.

From close to over, Texas went 6:31 without a point, going 0-for-10 in the process.

"People talk about us, wonder what would happen if we got to a big game," said Crocker, who enjoyed his first win over Texas along with his other teammates, except for Johnson and Taylor Griffin. "We were 16-15 two years ago, but we're No. 5 now, and we're not No. 5 for no reason."

The head-to-head record books for 2008-09 show Texas leading 3-2. The Longhorns won in women's soccer, split with Oklahoma in women's volleyball and, as you might have heard, won a little football game.

There will be more opportunities down the road -- swimming and diving, track and field, baseball -- for the Sooners to try to even the score.

And there will be another little basketball game in a few weeks.

It will be played in Austin.

Something the strangely-named-for-a-Sooner Austin Johnson is well aware of.

"I hear that a lot," he said. "I know. I know."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

ALSO SEE