Game Recap: The #15 Texas Longhorns (14-4) improved to 3-1 in conference play, with a 67-58 win, as they ran away from Texas A&M in the second half. The home court victory was the 19th straight, registering as the fourth longest in the nation.
After receiving less than impressive performance from his team on defense and from Damion James in Norman two games ago, Rick Barnes saw both have respond solidly against Texas Tech last Saturday and again last night against the Aggies. Texas held A&M to 45% shooting for the game but to just 36% from the floor in the second half. (The second half percentage would have been even lower had the Aggies not knocked down three three-pointers in the final minute and a half with the game already out of reach.) Texas forced 13 Aggies turnovers and won points in the paint (32-22), points off turnovers (15-9), and second chance points (15-7). The Longhorns also controlled the glass on both ends with 16 offensive rebounds and an overall 41-29 margin on the boards.
A&M was able to make some shots early in the game but cooled off as the game continued. Texas led just 30-28 after a back and forth, physical first half that saw just ten total fouls called. The refs were letting both teams play. A lot. With the two teams combining to shoot 4-of-13 from the free throw line, the halftime score wouldn’t have been much higher even if the refs had blown their whistles more often.
After the break, Damion James and the Texas defense took over. James scored 15 of his game-high 28 points in the second half, mostly in transition and by attacking the basket in the half court. After a Josh Carter three-pointer cut the Texas lead to 44-40, the Texas defense helped transform the Erwin Center into the "Damion James show." DaMo scored the next eight points to extend the Texas lead to 52-40, from which the ‘Horns would never look back.
As good as Damion was last night, it all started with the Texas defense. Barnes made two critical adjustments at halftime that caused the Aggie offense to stall. In the first twenty minutes, A&M repeatedly fed Chinemelu "Junior" Elonu in the post. Elonu dominated Texas by using his bigger body to force the Longhorns defenders completely under the basket. Junior scored 11 points in the first half with none of his shots coming from more than three feet away. The second half was a different story, however. Texas started to double Elonu with a second forward on each and every catch. This is exactly what Kansas did to A&M on Monday night, and it worked beautifully. Elonu was forced to retreat from the basket by dribbling away from the double team or just kick the ball out sideways to a guard. At this point in his career, Elonu is not a skilled enough big man to turn diagonally and hit a cutting guard or one waiting on the perimeter for an easy jumper. The new strategy held Elonu to just a single point in the second half.
The second adjustment was instituting full court pressure after made baskets. While it may not seem like much of a factor because the Texas pressure doesn’t create dozens of turnovers, pressuring the Aggie guards full-court made a huge difference in the tempo of the game and in the comfort level for the Aggie offense. Pressure forces a condensed shot clock in the half court; A&M wasn’t able to run their typical half-court man offense because they only had 25 seconds left on the shot clock and they weren’t able to feed and re-feed the post like they were in the first half. Pressure also creates chaos. Players who typically don’t touch the ball on the perimeter are coming away from the basket to help their guards and, consequently, they make mistakes or take shots they wouldn’t ordinarily take. Kudos to Barnes for adjusting both his full court and his half court defense in the second half. In the first 18 and a half minutes of the second half, the Aggies scored just 21 points
The outcome was: Pleasing. For the second straight game, the Longhorns responded. Following the blow-out loss to OU, it would have been easy for the ‘Horns to hang their heads a little, to be embarrassed, and to not focus as hard as they had been through the first half of the season. We have seen none of that. The defense has stepped up, AJ Abrams and Dexter Pittman seem to have adjusted to their new roles, and Dogus Balbay continues to improve his decision making at the point. There is not much of a chance that this team is ever going to developed into a smooth and efficient offensive machine. The players and the coaches both know that. And that is why it is so important that Texas plays suffocating defense every single game. It is hard to see many conference teams scoring more than 65 points on Texas this season. If the Texas offense can continue to eek out about 70 points, the Longhorns will be in the thick of the conference title race.
Stat of the Game: Rebounds 41-29. No one Texas Longhorn had more than seven rebounds but the ‘Horns dominated the boards. The bruising Texas A&M Aggies scored just seven second chance points. For a team that shoots the ball as poorly as they do, that is a critical stat.
The Offensive MVP was: Damion James. In the Tech review, I wrote:
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.
James scored 28 points (11-of-21), grabbed seven boards, and added an assist and a block in 36 minutes. He was also a solid 5-of-7 from the line. The most impressive thing about Damion’s game was that he didn’t settle offensively. He didn’t let the defensive dictate where he was going to get his shots. DaMo knocked down a three-pointer in rhythm in the first half, attacked the basket from the wing against the slower Josh Carter and Brian Davis all game, and ran the floor to the reward of three fast break dunks and six easy points.
The Defensive MVP was: AJ Abrams. In addition to playing solidly at point, Abrams more than held his own on the defensive end. For most of the game, Abrams drew Carter as his defensive assignment. Josh Carter is a legitimate 6-7 and is really the only Aggie who is threat to score from the outside. Much like teams do to Abrams when he is playing off the ball, AJ chased Carter around screens all game long and limited him to just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. As PB mentioned in the preview, unless Carter went off, the Aggies had little chance to steal this one in Austin. Abrams made sure that didn’t happen. Well done.
Bench: Varez Ward, Clint Chapman, and Matt Hill made only brief appearances and were not factors. Dogus Balbay played 17 minutes and ran the team well. Balbay had four assists and no turnovers while playing fantastic on-the-ball defense. He is quickly settling into a reliable second option at point guard. The shot is still not there but his defense, his rebounding, and his much improved decision making will continue to earn him minutes.
Dexter Pittman wreaked havoc in his limited action. Sexy Dex scored seven points and grabbed four rebounds in his quick seven minutes. That kind of boost is exactly what Barnes is looking for. It appears that he wants Texas to be quicker on offense in the half court, with more spacing and cutting. Planting Dexter in the paint doesn’t allow that to happen. So, Dexter has been resigned to more of a spark-of-the-bench role than an integral part of the offensive game plan.
Two Things: (1) AJ playing a different kind of point guard now. AJ at point to start the season was a disaster. He was still playing with a shooting guard mentality, not distributing the ball, and not trusting his teammates. Over the last two games, we’ve seen a different Abrams. He is not the single focus of the offense, as he is just 3-of-10 in each of the last two games. And with the development of Balbay, AJ is not being asked to play the point for the entire game. When he is at point, he is doing a serviceable job and not hurting his team by jacking up 27 shots. Now, it is hard to say if Abrams is happy playing point, like he wanted at the beginning of the season and what he thinks is his ticket to the League, or if he is disappointed that he isn’t scoring or shooting as much in his new role. Regardless, his maturity with the ball in his hands has helped Texas win the last two games.
(2) The officiating was HORRIBLE. I am not one to usually talk about officiating but the men in stripes were terrible. They were not bad for one team, though. They were just bad. In the first half, their whistles appeared not to work. Both teams were literally beating each other up in the post with no calls. Both teams were allowed to physically hedge ball screens so much so that the guard with the ball was sometimes bumped back to the half court stripe. Obviously, this was going to be a physical game: the teams hate each other and both are limited offensively. But the refs needed to establish some level of control. In the first half, there was none. Not surprisingly, the second half appeared to be whistled by a different crew. After calling ten total fouls in the first, the two teams combined for 27 fouls in the second! Too loose in the first and two tight in the second led to exasperated players and coaches. Luckily, the refs didn’t affect the outcome of the game; they were just bad.
NEXT GAME: Away at Baylor – Tuesday 1/27 8:00 p.m. Big 12 Network (formerly ESPN+)