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Strong Second Half Propels Horns over Buffs

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Game Recap: Just when it felt like a promising season that had already produced two wins over top ten teams was slipping away, AJ Abrams and the #19 Longhorns responded. Texas bounced back from an abysmal first half performance to survive, 69-67, and improve their record to 14-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big XII.

Texas was terrible on both ends of the floor in the first half. Colorado shot over 50% from the floor, won the battle on the boards despite having just one player over 6-6, and generally outhustled the Horns to loose balls over the first twenty minutes. CU led 37-28 at the break, and the deficit would have been worse had it now been for the strong play of DJ Augustin. With Damion James saddled with two fouls and AJ shooting his way through another dry spell, the Horns were desperate for scoring. Thankfully, Augustin stepped up and kept Texas in the ball game.

His efforts looked like they would go unmatched, though, as CU scored the first four points of the second half to take a 13 point lead. Then, something clicked. Abrams got hot, James returned from his exile, Justin Mason took over on the defensive end, and Augustin provided back breaking drives and three-pointers to propel the Horns to their first conference victory of the season.

It wasn’t pretty and the outcome remained in doubt until the final seconds as the Horns struggled to put away the Buffaloes down the stretch, but it was a win and a victory during which we saw the reemergence of Connor Atchley on the offensive end and of Mason on the defensive end.

The outcome was: Much Needed. I don’t even want to imagine the pain and anger that Longhorn fans would have felt had Texas not grabbed the W tonight. I wrote in the preview that this was a ‘must win’ and I meant it. The Horns are now 1-1 in the very tough Big XII conference that through two weeks has just three undefeated teams left: Kansas, Kansas State, and Baylor. Texas moves toward the top of the standings, protects their home court, and rides into Stillwater on Big Monday with a legitimate chance of stealing a road victory.

While the Horns remain near manic in their different halves of play, their second half performance was very solid and the type of performance that keeps hope alive for a deep run in March.  Yeah, the transition defense was terrible in the first half as was the defensive rebounding, the free throw shooting remains a cause for concern, and, Gary Johnson, the savior, is making some of the mistakes his teammates made back in November and December, but Texas is still blessed with the best point guard in the country, is still improving on offense, and is showing flashes of being a decent defensive team.

The Offensive MVP was: DJ Augustin. DJ was not phenomenal tonight; he was very good, though. And most importantly, he was very good in the first half, when the Horns needed him the most. Augustin scored 14 points in the first half, a half in which the entire team accounted for just 14 more. He single handedly kept the Horns in the game. AJ was misfiring from long range on offense and losing his man on defense, James sat the final 17 minutes of the first half, Johnson was having trouble defensively, and Mason still has zero offensive confidence. DJ finished the game with 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting, five rebounds, and five assists to just one turnover. He was not without fault though. DJ struggled at the line, going just 7-of-11, and missed the front end of a one-and-one late in the game which could have help seal the outcome. In close games, Augustin is going to have the ball in his hands down the stretch. He is too good a shooter to miss free throws with the game on the line.

The Defensive MVP was: Justin Mason. Mason wins this one hands down. CU played most of the game with four perimeter players. With Johnson having difficulty defending shorter, quicker players, Barnes smartly inserted Mason for defensive help. Simply put, Mason responded. In 36 minutes, Mason had six rebounds, four blocks, two steals, two assists, and just one turnover. After Richard Roby scored seven points in the first four minutes of the game, Mason helped limit him to just 11 points the rest of the way.

Justin was everywhere on the defensive end. He got in passing lanes, blocked layups, forced tough shots, and crashed the boards. The energy Mason provided off the bench was HUGE! Barnes said after the game that Mason played so well that he would be rewarded with a start in Stillwater. Justin will likely draw the assignment of 6-6 James Anderson, a freshman and Oklahoma State’s top scorer. Another defensive performance like this one will go a long way toward a Longhorn victory on Monday night.

The Freshman Evaluation tonight was: Inconsequential. Chapman played just eight minutes and Wangmene just seven. With each passing game, it looks more and more like Barnes will stick with his top six players and try to squeeze just a few minutes out of Chap, Wingman, and Dex. That is fine by me. None of three look like they are ready for double digit minutes, and if they haven’t shown it by now, it will be very difficult to trust them as the competition gets better.

As for Gary Johnson, the situation is different. Johnson is not comfortable defending the perimeter. If he can match up with a post player, then I think he will be fine but when he draws a smaller player who is more comfortable shooting the three than they are on the low blocks, then he will continue to have problems.

Three Things: (1) AJ Abrams drives me crazy. He was terrible in the first half. He wasn’t hitting his jumpers, wasn’t passing the ball, and gave up at least three wide-open three pointers on the other end. But then with the Horns down 13 points and on the brink of total meltdown, he knocks down a three pointer, completes a driving layup and the free throw, makes a steal, and knocks down a transition three that send CU to the canvas. His first half performance was about a 2 on a scale of 1-10, but he somehow found his stroke at halftime and delivered about an 8 over the final twenty minutes. For the game, AJ added 17 points, two rebounds, and three steals in 39 minutes of action. Overall, those aren’t bad numbers. But his inability to recognize when he isn’t knocking down long jumpers and his total blindness to passing the ball to the post drive me crazy. I’d love to see more consistency but am not holding my breath.

(2) We found Connor Atchley. You can call off the search dogs, land the helicopters, and notify his parents. Connor was definitely in the building tonight and came up big. Atchley scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, grabbed five boards (four offensive ones), and added an assist, a blocked shot, and a steal in 32 minutes. He was active on both ends of the floor and really made the Buffaloes pay for doubling DJ on the high pick and pop, as he knocked down two big three-pointers. With AJ, DJ, and Damion on the floor, Coach Barnes doesn’t need Connor to be a huge scorer. He does, however, need him to contribute. After a couple of weeks of being totally invisible, it was great to see Connor come up big.

(3) Tonight’s crowd was very good. The students are back, the season ticket holders have located the Drum, and even the local Boy Scouts showed up to support the basketball team. I wasn’t in town for the Wisconsin game, but have made all the others, and this was by far the largest and loudest crowd of the season. The fans were tremendous tonight and loud at all the right moments as the Horns needed an extra boost after a forgettable first half. Kudos to all those who made it out to the Erwin Center.

I wrote before the game that this game opened a three game stretch of very winnable games for the Horns. One down, two to go. The Horns don’t get any rest, though. They will take on the reeling Oklahoma State Cowboys on Monday night. The trip to Stillwater is always a strange one, from Texas players nearly getting into fights with fans, to Brad Buckman fouling a heaved three pointer from half-court, to last year’s epic triple overtime thriller. Who knows what this year will bring...

Box Score

NEXT GAME: Road vs. Oklahoma State – Monday 1/21 8:00 p.m.