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Abrams and Johnson Key Win over Cyclones

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Game Recap: This time the Horns fell behind in a different way: in the second half. Fortunately, the Longhorns (19-4, 6-2) chipped away at Iowa State’s 13 point second half lead over the final 16 minutes and eventually outlasted the Cyclones, 71-65, in overtime. Rick Barnes got huge games from AJ Abrams and Gary Johnson, who made up just enough for the Longhorns to overcome a forgettable performance from DJ Augustin.

For the first time in many games, Texas actually took the lead from the opening tip but couldn’t capitalize on the Cyclones offense woes. The Longhorns led just 6-0 after four minutes of action. After a sloppy first half of turnovers and missed opportunities by both teams, ISU led 31-27 at the break. It was obvious that the Horns were the superior team. However, it was also obvious that things weren’t going their way. Texas missed point blank shots in the lane, turned the ball over at least seven times, shot just 31% from the floor, and allowed way too many easy looks after slow defensive rotations off high pick and rolls. Talent advantage or not, the Horns were locked in a battle.

Texas opened the second half repeating the same errors and fell behind by 42-29 with 16 minutes left in regulation. Fortunately, AJ Abrams kick started the offense and the whole team picked up their intensity on defense. Texas began to cut into the double digit lead possession after possession. Abrams nailed three three-pointers and scored 11 of the Horns next 13 points to cut the lead to 48-42 with six minutes left. Then, it was Gary Johnson’s turn. GJ’s back to back buckets and another three by AJ brought the Horns even closer. Solid free throw shooting (8/8) by AJ, DJ, and Gary over the final minutes helped send the game into overtime. Also worth mentioning is the Horns’ defensive effort. ISU had been getting multiple looks at the basket off long rebounds. The Horns did a better job on the glass and with post defense as Juri Hubalek sat with four fouls. ISU went cold as Texas began to hold the Cyclones to just one shot per possession and held ISU to just seven points over the final eight minutes of regulation.

After a missed AJ jumper, the game headed to overtime. With ISU in foul trouble and having just blown a double digit lead, Texas looked to be in good shape. The defensive intensity continued as ISU scored just two points in the five extra minutes and repeatedly settled for long, contested jumpers after Texas played solid half-court defense for 30+ seconds. Now, Texas wasn’t exactly spectacular on offense in overtime either, but they did just enough. Gary finished near the rim off a nice feed from DJ, and Augustin hit one of his few field goals of the afternoon to put Texas up by four points with just 38 seconds left. Texas easily held on from there to grab their third straight victory, their second straight on the road, and improve their Big XII record to 6-2.

The outcome was: Enormous. Winning on the road in conference play is never easy, but this is one the Horns should win and did. Texas is in the midst of a very difficult stretch of games with both games this week coming on the road, a home tilt with Kansas, and another road trip to Waco next Saturday. The win over Oklahoma sent this team on an upward trend and the Longhorn couldn’t afford to give back the momentum now.

The Horns have now finished the first half of conference play 3-0 at home and 3-2 on the road. The uneven split means that Texas now gets five of their last eight at home with road trips to Baylor, Kansas State, and Texas Tech. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I can’t help it. This road win combined with the win in Norman on Wednesday allows my pipe dream of 12-4 in conference to remain possible.

The Offensive MVPs were: AJ Abrams and Gary Johnson. AJ gets the nod because he single handedly shot the Horns back in the game. Abrams finished with 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 7-of-10 from three, five rebounds, three assists, two steals, and zero turnovers in 42 minutes. I have been one of the first ones to gripe about his shot selection at times this season. Not today. This was one of his best overall performances, on offense and defense. If he doesn’t get hot from behind the arc, there is no way we win. Period.

Gary Johnson was just as important, and this was without a doubt his best performance as a Longhorn: 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting, 5-of-6 from the free throw line, and nine rebounds. Johnson looked so much more comfortable. He rotated well on defense, showed effectively on ball screens, and was active on the glass. I also liked his patience on offense. If his defender pressured him, he lowered his left shoulder, powered into the paint, and finished with his right hand. When his defender played off him, he calmly raised up and knocked down the baseline jumper. Very impressive. The performance we saw today was exactly what we’d hope to see from Gary since he committed to the Horns last spring. BTW, Gary apparently broke his nose in practice on Friday and decided to play without the Rip Hamilton-like mask.

The Defensive MVP was: Second Half and OT Defense. The first half effort on defense was simply poor. ISU shot 41% from the floor and consistently got good looks at the basket off high pick and rolls, offensive rebounds, and turnovers. After the Horns allowed ISU to score the first seven points of the second half, the effort and the results changed. The Texas guards pressured the basketball on the perimeter which resulted in turnovers and more difficulty feeding the post. The Texas big men were more physical with their defense near the paint and did a better job on the defensive glass. For the game, ISU committed 15 turnovers, shot 36.5% from the floor, 22% from three, and scored just two points in overtime. With the game on the line, the Texas defense made the difference.

The Freshman Evaluation tonight was: Not Relevant. If you exclude Johnson, who we mentioned above, Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene were not factors this afternoon. Chap played just four minutes, committed a turnover, and watched a DJ Augustin pass whiz out of bounds. Wingman managed to commit four fouls in his seven minutes of play.

Three Things: (1) This team is getting better. That may be an odd thing to write after the Horns had to go to OT against one of three worst teams in the conference, but it’s true. Coming into this year most thought Texas would be able to put up tons of points but with their small guards and lack of experienced big men would struggle on defense. That has been the case through most of the year, but things are improving. Gary Johnson is coming along nicely, and AJ, DJ, and Mason are starting to do a better job of pressuring the basketball and contesting three pointers. Next, the mid-season free throws adventures are starting to disappear. Only Damion James still appears to be struggling at the line. Even the rebounding concerns are starting to become less of an issue. Rick Barnes coached teams historically have gotten better as the season as gone on and this one is no exception.

(2) Very tough day for DJ. This just wasn’t his game. Augustin began the game at attacking the paint relentlessly. Unfortunately, he was totally ineffective once he got there. DJ forced too many tough shots in the lane, relied on his fade-away too often, and rarely looked to dish to a post player. He even struggled shooting the three. DJ was just 1-of-7 from behind the arc and missed more than a couple of looks that he normally cans. It is obvious that defenses are sagging into the lane and helping with an extra defender when he enters the lane. DJ needs to adjust and start to kick the ball back outside for open threes or dish to Connor, Damion, or Gary before he takes that final dribble in the lane. This was one of those games when we sorely missed reliable guard play from off the bench. It would have been really nice to sit DJ for a few minutes and let him catch his breath.

(3) Bench play will be needed on Monday. I just finished watching Kansas fast break their way to victory over Baylor, 100-90. Against Iowa State, I thought Texas needed to push the tempo. The opposite may be true against the Jayhawks. DJ played 44 minutes, AJ played 42 minutes, and only six Longhorns played more than seven minutes. With a quick 48 hour turnaround and our lack of depth, the Texas bench may have to play some extended minutes on Monday night. That doesn’t sound good...

Box Score

NEXT GAME: Home vs. Kansas – Monday 2/11 8:00 p.m. ESPN