Game Recap: Behind a strong second half offensive performance and an entire game of lock-down defense, Texas (13-4, 2-1) ran away from Texas Tech, 71-49, for their first conference road win of the season.
For the first time in weeks, the Texas Longhorns looked like they knew what to do on offense, at least in the second half. In the first half, Texas still struggled and led just 30-24. Some might look at a six point lead at half against a conference opponent and be pleased. Don’t be fooled into giving Pat Knight’s club too much credit. The Red Raiders are not good. They are no better than the ninth or tenth best team in the conference and only better than Colorado for sure. Texas Tech does not have great athletes, only has one player opponents have to game plan for, in Alan Voskuil, and doesn’t play pressure defense or force the tempo, which often helps inferior teams stay competitive. No, this was a road game that the Longhorns had to win and should win convincingly.
In the second twenty minutes, Texas did just that. Damion James (game high 18 pts) came alive on offense with timely three pointers, on-balance pull-up jumpers, and cuts to the basket which left the Tech defenders trailing. Longhorn fans also witnessed the "true" Justin Mason (15 pts) in the second half. Mason was a difference maker on both ends. He played solid defense, slashed to the basket in the half-court, and even knocked down a three pointer.
As solid as the offense was in the second half, the defense was just as impressive. Texas held Tech to 24 points in the first half and just 25 in the second, making Tech the third Texas opponent who failed to reach 50 points for the game.
This may overstate things slightly, but in the half-court, Tech couldn’t score. Texas did a fantastic job of pressuring the basketball and caused 14 Tech turnovers. They also hedged nicely on Tech screens and played solid man-to-man defense against the Tech motion offense. Texas forced Tech into countless tough shots and put the icing on the defensive cake by controlling the defensive glass. More often than not, Tech took a tough shot, missed it, and was quickly retreating on defense.
The outcome was: Satisfying. After the let downs in Fayetteville and Norman, I didn’t know what to expect from this afternoon’s trip to Lubbock. On one hand, Tech was really bad and shouldn’t be able to hang with the Longhorns for 40 minutes. On the other hand, Texas entered the game with a severe lack of confidence on offense and full of players who could be easily defended with a sagging zone defense.
The first half was more of the same: the Texas defense showed up, and will always be able to keep the ‘Horns in games, but the offense was still not clicking and preventing Texas from dominating an inferior opponent. Things quickly changed after the break as Texas scored the first five points of the half and never looked back.
Stat of the Game: Rebounds 37-25. Texas had the athletic advantage at every position, and it showed prominently through the battles on the glass. Justin Mason (10 rebounds), Damion James (8 rebounds), and Gary Johnson (7 rebounds) owned the glass on both ends. As already mentioned, Texas didn’t allow Tech second looks at the basket while grabbing 12 offensive rebounds of their own. That number would have probably been higher had the ‘Horns not shot 44% from the floor.
The Offensive MVP was: Damion James. In order for basketball teams to be great, they need three legitimate scorers. Texas knew coming into the season that AJ Abrams would provide the scoring from the perimeter, and after the non-conference season, it became clear that the combination of Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman could provide a scoring threat in the post. The scoring threat from the wing was missing though. Despite coming into the season as a potential NBA lottery pick by season’s end and a likely All Big XII selection, James has struggled to adjust to the small forward position. His shot has been off and his handle more than a little shaky. DaMo has even started to let his offensive frustrations affect his entire game.
This afternoon in Lubbock, Damion looked like the Damion we all hoped we’d see all season. His shot selection was great, his passing and dribbling were under control, and he began to call for the basketball, as you could literally see his confidence rising. It goes without saying that Texas is an entirely different offensive club when more than Abrams is threat to score facing the basket.
The Defensive MVP was: Justin Mason. This is as much about a complete performance as it is about anything Mase did specifically on the defensive end. Mason scored 15 points on a variety of scoring drives in the lane while also adding 10 boards to complete his double-double performance. On defense, Mase did a good job keeping the Tech guards out of the lane and contesting three-pointers by Voskuil and John Roberson.
This was a complete team defensive performance, though, and reminiscent of the lock-down defense we saw from the ‘Horns to start the year. They played great team defense and rotated to the ball on drives and overplays by their teammates. Tech shot a horrendous 34% from the floor, turned the ball over 14 times, and never got the backdoor lay ups the motion offense is suppose to create.
Bench: Gary Johnson, in his first start of the season, replaced Dexter Pittman to start the game. For this one, the bench consisted of Dogus Balbay, Varez Ward, Pittman, Clint Chapman, Matt Hill, and Harrison Smith. Pittman, Chapman and Smith all played just the final two minutes of the first half and were not factors in the game. Ward played just eight minutes and may be in the same dog house as Pittman is. Varez is averaging 15 minutes per game on the season but played less than ten in Norman and again this afternoon.
So, the bench play was not extensive at all. Balbay played decently in the first half as he looked to finish himself instead of pass after penetrating into the lane. Dogus finished with six points, a couple of rebounds, and a couple of assists in 19 minutes. Balbay was the only Longhorn who failed to play solid defense without fouling. His four personal fouls was probably the reason he didn’t see more action in the second half.
Hill was a nice surprise for the ‘Horns. After playing more than ten minutes in just one game this season, Matt was on the floor for 27 minutes and responded with six points and five rebounds. Before we get too excited, though, let me point out that Texas Tech is one of the few conference teams with athletes that Hill can match up with. Against most other conference foes, Matt’s lack of lateral quickness on defense and fear of shooting the basketball will severely hurt the Longhorns. But today, nice job.
Three Things: (1) Team offense is more effective than AJ-centric offense. As Johnson scored in the paint and James and Mason attacked from the wings, the Texas offense was less reliant on AJ’s three-pointer and consequently, much more difficult to defend. In the last couple of games, opponents have been able to overplay Abrams and camp the other four defenders in the lane daring Texas to shoot perimeter jumpers. Today, Texas didn’t settle for jumpers and attacked the basket relentlessly. The Longhorns were rewarded not just in terms of higher percentage shots but also in trips to the free throw line. As a team, Texas was 15-of-20 from the stripe. I am going to begin to sound like a broken record: the more consistent James can be from the wing, the more open looks Abrams will get and the less congested the lane will be for Gary and Dex.
(2) Still waiting for Connor. The Longhorns improved a lot this afternoon in Lubbock. However, the one ‘Horn who is still searching is Connor Atchley. Connor played just 17 minutes as Barnes went small and with Hill in spots. Atchley took just two shots, missing both, and grabbed a couple of rebounds. He was whistled for two quick fouls in the first half, sat the bench, and never appeared to be mentally in the game. I, for one, am rooting hard for Connor. When AJ is getting overplayed and Mason and James are not able to knock down perimeter jumpers, it can be Atchley who forces the defense to play honestly and not just clog the lane. When Connor is on the court opposite Gary or Dex, as he usually is, the Longhorns are really playing a four out, one in offense. If those four face-the-basket players aren’t threats to hit three-pointers, there is nothing to prevent double or triple teaming of the post. I have this gut feeling that Connor is ready to break out with three or four treys and save Texas sometime soon. Keep your head up, Connor. We’re going to need you.
(3) The Big XII is a winnable league. Oklahoma also grabbed a conference road win and now sits at 3-0 with two wins already away from Norman. As bad as we looked on Monday, I still think this team has a chance to put it together on offense and grind our way toward another conference title. In order for that to happen, Texas will probably need to get to 12-4 in the Big XII. We get there by not losing a home game and adding road wins at Tech, at Colorado, and at Nebraska and then stealing a road win at Baylor, A&M, or Oklahoma State. If you’d asked me if this was possible at halftime, I would have said no. Now, after watching the ‘Horns play together on offense for 20 minutes, who knows.
NEXT GAME: Home vs. Texas A&M – Saturday 1/24 7:00 p.m. ESPNU