Wow! That is certainly the first word that comes to mind as I return from the Erwin Center. For those of you who missed it, the #11 Horns (20-4, 7-2) played their most balanced game of the season, a 72-69 win over #3 Kansas, and put even more polish on what is already a striking resume.
I’m going to forgo the usual recap format and write just a few points about each of the six major contributors. Why? Number one, because I’m exhausted and number two, because no one player was responsible for this win. This was a fabulous team effort. The Horns played outstanding team defense in the second half, passed the ball well in the half-court, limited Kansas to just six transition points, and crashed the glass so well in the second half that they actually won the battle on the boards, 36-35, after being outrebounded by ten in the first twenty minutes.
Damion James: 14 points (4-of-8 field goals), 4-for-4 from the line, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 assists in 23 minutes.
James was the difference between the first half and the second. James picked up his second foul just three minutes into the game and was forced to sit the rest of the half. Despite shooting lights out from three, Texas got killed on the glass, gave up a tremendous amount of second looks, and headed to the locker room down four points, 42-38. With James on the floor in the second half, the Horns had a fighting chance on the boards. DaMo had all but two of his points and all of his rebounds in the second half and also helped shut down the Kansas bigs despite being undersized. If James plays his normal 30+ minutes, we’d be looking at 20+ points and 20+ rebounds. He was that good tonight.
AJ Abrams: 14 points (5-of-13 field goals), 2-of-8 from three, three rebounds, a block, a steal, and an assist in 40 minutes.
BON reader ‘jimmer’ said it best on the way home from the Drum, "AJ is all heart." With Damion on the bench and DJ having another tough night in the lane, Abrams stepped up big time in the first half. His 10 points in the first 12 minutes of the game gave the Horns the early lead and got the 16k in attendance excited and on their feet. But his biggest play of the night came on the defensive end and shouldn’t go unmentioned. With 58 seconds left in the game, Kansas kicked the ball to a wide open Brandon Rush in the corner for a game tying three-pointer. Somehow 5-10 AJ closed out on 6-6 Rush and managed to block his shot. Definitely the defensive play of the game.
Justin Mason: 9 points (3-of-8 field goals), 3-of-6 FTs, eight rebounds, two assists, and zero turnovers in 36 minutes.
Texas scored 11 second chance points in the second half in large part to the offensive rebounding of Mason and James. Five of his eight boards came on the offensive end. Mason was also outstanding on defense. He moved his feet well and kept the KU guards in front of him as well as he possibly could. Mason also played point guard for about half the first half and ran the offense well. He didn’t panic when he picked up his dribble; he didn’t lower his head and drive recklessly into the paint; and he didn’t slip and fall on every change of direction. Mason played in control and really helped the Horns tremendously on both ends.
Connor Atchley: 16 points (6-of-6 field goals), 4-of-4 from three, four rebounds, four blocks, two assists, and one turnover in 29 minutes.
In the preview, I noted that I didn’t think Texas had very many advantages in the match ups with KU. I forgot about one: Connor on the perimeter knocking down three-pointers. Atchley’s four three pointers were absolutely crucial to our first half success. He was also very good on the defensive side. Connor is one of the best shot blockers in the Big XII and showed his skills again tonight. He has really improved his timing and his help defense across the back line. I’d guess that all four of his blocks came tonight when he left his man and helped across the lane.
DJ Augustin: 10 points (1-for-13 field goals), 8-of-10 FTs, two rebounds, five assists, two steals, and one turnover in 40 minutes.
It is easy to look at 1-for-13 and say that DJ played a bad game, but I don’t believe that is the case. He had a tough first half as he once again got too deep into the lane and was forced into tough shots over taller defenders, but his second half was much better. He ran the half-court offense efficiently and found Texas bigs for a couple of easy looks in the second half off his own drives. His penetration also caused the defense to collapse and allowed James and Mason some space for offensive rebounds. Last, five assists to just one turnover in a full game against the opportunistic KU guards is very, very good. Even though his jumper and drives weren’t falling, DJ contributed to the win in other ways.
Gary Johnson: 7 points (2-of-5 field goals), 3-of-6 FTs, three rebounds, an assist, and four turnovers in 19 minutes.
GJ is the second Longhorn where the stats don’t tell the full story. Gary provided the Horns with an inside presence, especially in the first half with Damion on the bench, and was active on the glass and with his post defense. He is still learning and missed some defensive assignments. Overall, though, he played really hard and helped get Arthur and Kahn into foul trouble.
This is a very satisfying win. The Horns just beat the team that I thought was the best in the country. Take nothing away from Kansas. They remain a deep, talented, and well-coached team that may not lose again this regular season and will be tough out for anyone come tournament time. But, tonight, Texas was the better team and Coach Barnes and the Longhorns deserve all the praise. The Horns played a complete and physical game, which they won with defense and rebounding in the second half. Imagine that, the Horns won with defense and rebounding. It is worth noting again: this team just keeps improving. Well done Horns.
Away vs. Baylor – Saturday 2/16 5:00 p.m. ESPN