TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Tristan Thompson caught the ball on the left side of the basket and spun to his right.
Guarded by the Summit League’s best player in center Keith Benson, the Texas freshman had to make a choice as his momentum carried toward the baseline. Rather than put the ball up with his left hand, his shooting hand, and risk a block, the 6-foot-8 Thompson shot with his right hand to create extra space between he and Benson.
The shot banked off the glass and went in.
It was that kind of day for Thompson and the Longhorns, who survived a late rally to defeat Oakland 85-81 in their NCAA tournament opener Friday. Thompson finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks in helping Texas avoid the same fate as fellow No. 4 seed Louisville, which lost to Morehead State on Thursday.
"We just won a game against an outstanding team," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "A team that’s tough, hard-nosed and not going away. We knew they’d fight."
Thompson controlled his matchup with the 6-foot-11 Benson, collecting three offensive rebounds on Texas’ first three possessions while battling head-to-head with the senior. He didn’t let up after that, attacking the glass with the intensity that concerned Oakland coach Greg Kampe before the game and showing off an array of spin moves and power dunks on offense.
"First off, (Benson’s) an outstanding big man," Thompson said. We knew coming in trying to try and make it difficult for him. Trying to get him off the block and have him resort to turnaround jumpers.
"I just tried to play defense and help my team win."
The Summit League’s Player of the Year finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, but was 6-of-15 shooting. He struggled to find a niche inside during the up-and-down game against Texas’ frontcourt duo of Thompson and Jordan Hamilton, who added 19 points and 10 rebounds.
"(Thompson’s) a really athletic player," Benson said. "He had long arms and he goes hard to the offensive boards.
" So I just tried to battle with him and keep him off the boards."
Oakland trailed 46-38 at halftime and fell behind by as many as 17 points after Jai Lucas’ 3-pointer gave the Longhorns a 63-46 lead early in the second half. Texas continued to control throughout the half, leading 78-63 with less than five minutes remaining after a jumper by J’Covan Brown.
Oakland finished 33-of-75 (44. percent) shooting, while the Longhorns were 30-of-63 (47.6 percent).
"What can I say?" Kampe said. "We played a team that can win the national championship, and we did everything we thought we could do. We didn’t make enough shots."
The Golden Grizzlies (25-10), the NCAA’s second-highest scoring team with an average of 85.6 points per game, didn’t fold. They closed the Longhorns’ lead to 80-75 after a Larry Wright 3-pointer with 1:23 remaining and appeared on the verge of sending Texas to an opening loss at the tournament for a second straight year.
The Longhorns, however, responded to the late surge by hitting five free throws in the final minute to secure the win. Texas finished 21-of-26 at the line, including a 12-of-12 performance from Brown, who led Texas with 21 points.
Next up for the Longhorns is the Arizona-Memphis winner on Sunday. It’s a welcome game for a Texas team that lost in the first round to Wake Forest last year.
"It’s a new year," Barnes said. "But, yeah, this is what we play for. I don’t think there is any question this time of year.
"I’ve said before, you don’t take for granted getting into the tournament, but once you’re in it, you want to do something."