Last season, Texas did not have P.J. Tucker or LaMarcus Aldridge available for the NCAA tournament. The result was a first-round loss.
The Longhorns’ two top players hope to continue to make amends for their absence when they lead Texas (30-6) against LSU (23-8) on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.
Tucker played only 17 games last season before being declared ineligible due to academic problems. Aldridge saw action in only 16 games before being sidelined by a hip injury.
The two players were forced to watch Texas’ 61-57 first-round loss to Nevada in street clothes.
“We kind of just sat on the bench and vowed to each other that we would come back and do what we needed to do,” Tucker said.
Now Tucker and Aldridge have second-seeded Texas in the Atlanta Regional final, on the brink of its second Final Four trip in four years. Tucker, a senior, is the Big 12 player of the year while Aldridge was named the conference’s first defensive player of the year.
Ironically, Aldridge considered going straight to the NBA out of high school two years ago before talking to former LSU star and current Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal, who told him to go to college.
“He just emphasized how much you have in college, how much you miss out if you don’t go to college,” Aldridge said. “He just emphasized how much time you have to develop in college.”
Tucker and Aldridge combined for 41 points and 27 rebounds in the Longhorns’ 74-71 victory over West Virginia on Thursday.
However, neither player figured in the game’s decisive play. After the Mountaineers’ Kevin Pittsnogle hit a tying 3-pointer with 5 seconds left, Longhorns guard A.J. Abrams took the inbounds pass, streaked upcourt and found Kenton Paulino for a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I’m just glad the shot went in,” Paulino said. “I really haven’t thought about the importance or this and that. I’m just living the moment.”
A day later, the Longhorns appeared loose when discussing the dramatic finish. Coach Rick Barnes joked that Paulino had asked for four copies of the tape of his shot and his teammates laughed.
After dealing with the Mountaineers’ predominantly 3-point attack, Texas will face a different style against LSU. The Tigers have only one major perimeter threat in Darrel Mitchell, instead relying on a strong frontcourt that features Glen Davis, Tyrus Thomas and Tasmin Mitchell.
“They’re a different ballclub,” Paulino said. “You can somewhat compare them to Memphis based on athletic ability.”
The fourth-seeded Tigers advanced by knocking off top-seeded Duke, 62-54 on Thursday. LSU is seeking its first Final Four appearance since 1986 when an 11th-seeded club coached by Dale Brown became the lowest seeded team ever to reach college basketball’s final weekend.
Despite foul trouble to Davis and Thomas, LSU used a supreme defensive effort that limited Duke to its lowest point total of the last 10 seasons. The Tigers held the Blue Devils to just under 28 percent shooting, including a 3-of-18 effort by ACC player of the year J.J. Redick.
Although Redick was guarded primarily by Garrett Temple, LSU coach John Brady was quick to credit his whole team for the defensive effort.
“Darrel Mitchell is awfully quick,” Brady said. “Tasmin Mitchell is the most mature freshman I have ever coached. And then you put Glen on the floor with the length of Tyrus Thomas, you have the makings of a nice defensive team.”
Thomas blocked five shots and has 11 through three games in the tournament.
LSU leads the all-time series with Texas, 18-10. The Tigers won the last matchup 72-67 in the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament.
The winner will meet Memphis or UCLA next Saturday in Indianapolis.