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AJ Abrams Leads Texas Past St. Joe's in Maui

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For the third straight game, it was the defense that carried the #7 Texas Longhorns (3-0). The ‘Horns cruised to a 68-50 victory over St. Joseph's and advanced to the second round of the Maui Invitational. Texas will take on #8 Notre Dame on Tuesday in the semifinal round. Tip time is 6 pm central and the game will be televised on ESPN.

It is a very good early season sign that Texas was never in danger of losing this game despite poor performances from Justin Mason and Damion James and an off shooting game for Connor Atchley. Sure, St. Joe's is not that good but this game was never close. Texas jumped to an early double digit lead, led by nine at half, and put the Hawks away in the second with a 9-0 run to go up 57-37. The offense was not sharp but the defense continues to impress. Even though the Longhorns' intensity on defense wavered some in the second half, Texas still forced 18 turnovers and held St. Joe's to 29% from the floor. With that kind of defense, Texas can beat anyone, regardless of how sloppy the offense is.

The defense is not just great effort by individual players; we are seeing fantastic team defense. When a Longhorn jumps out of position on a head fake or just misses a steal, a teammate has already slid over to help. The guards are moving their feet, cutting off dribble penetration, and contesting jumpers. The bigs are clogging the lane, showing beautifully when double teaming the post, and blocking shots with help defense. Maybe the only disappointing defensive stat was the 16 offensive rebounds corralled by St. Joe's.

There were four areas of importance I referenced in the preview:

Create Turnovers: As already mentioned the Longhorns were tenacious on defense and harassed St. Joe's into 18 total turnovers. The full court man-to-man pressure also wore out the Hawks.

James's Jump Shot: DaMo had one of his worst games in a long time. He pressed on offense and took countless contested jumpers and jumpers early in the shot clock. His poor shot selection, not poor form on this jumper, was the reason he went just 5-of-15 from the floor. Although Damion can hit the outside jumper, he needs to do a better job of taking the ball to the basket and finishing in the lane or getting to the free throw line. There is no reason for a player as quick and athletic as Damion to settle for 18 foot jump shots.

Make Free Throws: This was by far the best performance from the line this season. Texas shot 14-of-19 for 74%. The solid shooting will hopefully translate into confidence from the line in closer games.

Manage Rotations: Texas is DEEEEEEEEEP. All twelve Longhorns played and only Abrams played more than 27 minutes. Texas should be fresh for the Notre Dame game.

A few other observations by player...

AJ Abrams played one his finest halves of basketball as a Texas Longhorn in the first. He took care of the basketball, make the extra pass a couple of times, shot the ball in rhythm, and punished the Hawks for 14 first half points. AJ's jumper was a little off in the second half but he continued to play hard on defense and took care of the ball in the few times that he moved to the point. As hard as I am on AJ at times, this was one where he deserves praise. His 17 points, four rebounds, and three assists were just what the Longhorns needed and, most importantly, his offensive production came within the flow of the offense. Well done, AJ.

With none of the other four starters playing well offensively, it was Gary Johnson and Alexis Wangmene who helped pick up the slack from off the bench. Gary was instant offense and defense with 14 points and 10 rebounds in just 23 minutes. He also showed one very nice high-low post feed to Dexter Pittman. As teams scout the ‘Horns, they will see that Johnson forces his shots and is unlikely to pass or kick the ball back out after he catches it in the low post. Gary needs to use that scouting report to his advantage and begin to make the extra pass to open teammates. Once he establishes that skill, he will have even more room to operate at the elbow.

Wingman's energy off the bench was fantastic, and his contributions on both ends helped put St. Joe's away in the second half. Alexis finished with eight points, seven rebounds, a block and a steal in just nine minutes. With production like that, expect to see more of Wangmene as this tournament and the season progress. 

Dogus Balbay is more athletic than I thought. The one-handed rejection of a lay-up is something that most 6-6 players can't time or reach. He is still a little tentative on offense and hasn't made a jumper yet but the handles and defense are there. The development of a keep-the-defense-honest jumper will determine how much we see Balbay this season. If Dogus can't prove that he can make the outside jumper, then Rick will not have the option of playing Varez Ward and Balbay together. Teams will instantly go zone, clog the paint, and take away the Longhorns' size advantage.

Justin Mason just needs to slow down. I expect a much better performance from him on Tuesday.

I haven't seen Notre Dame play this season but here are a few quick notes and keys. The Irish advanced to the second round by pasting Indiana 88-50. Notre Dame is led by Big East player of the year, Luke Harangody, on the interior and guards Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney on the perimeter. The Texas bigs will have their hands full with Harangody in the post. Look for the ‘Horns to double Luke on the catch with a second post defender.

Texas will advance if they keep Luke from catching the ball with a foot in the paint and if they can take advantage of their depth advantage with a quick, yet smart tempo.

Notre Dame will advance if the Irish guards can handle the Texas pressure and if Harangody can get others involved in the offense.