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Anatomy of Separation: Full Court Pressure And A Damion James Explosion Against A&M

The Context

The Aggies cooled off after a torrid start, but the Longhorns were never able to separate from pesky Texas A&M -- that is, not until a 15-4 run over the course of two and a half minutes created the only separation Texas would need on the day. After being hurt by Bryan Davis and Junior Elonu on the block, the Longhorns started double teaming Elonu on the catch, limiting his effectiveness in the second half, but failing to increase the Texas lead.

A Dash Harris layup for the Aggies cut the Longhorn lead to 37-36 with just more than 13 minutes left in the game. The Longhorns, with a large lineup on the floor utilizing Dexter Pittman at center, Damion James and Gary Johnson at forward, and AJ Abrams and Justin Mason at the guard spots, responded by working the ball down low to Pittman on the left block, where he was fouled attempting a hook shot in the lane. Pittman made his two free throws, which were important to stem the Aggie momentum, but what happened next was even more important.

Able to substitute with Pittman making his free throws, Rick Barnes made his most important strategic decision of the game, inserting Connor Atchley for Pittman and Varez Ward for Gary Johnson, and instantly going to a full court trapping defense.

The Press and the Shot Fake

The press called for by Rick Barnes didn't deliver immediate returns. While the Aggies took extra time to get into their half court set, they did get the shot they wanted, with Josh Carter taking a contested turnaround shot from the left block. Turgeon had sent Carter down to the block in the second half to take advantage of his height mismatch against AJ Abrams, but only ended up making one basket in his post-up opportunities.

Carter going down to the block wasn't the major story, however. No, the major story here was AJ Abrams actually making use of a shot fake on the ensuing possession to free himself for an open 16-footer and allowing the Longhorns to set up their pressure defense.

Once again, the pressure didn't work for the Longhorns, as the Aggies passed ahead to a wide open David Loubeau in the lane, causing a foul by AJ Abrams. The excellent Texas free throw defense showed itself again, as Loubeau only made one of two, bringing his total on consecutive possessions to 1-4.

The Press and Damion James

A difficult shot jump starts James

After Connor Atchley secured the defensive rebound following Loubeau's missed free throw, the Longhorns ran their offense with Abrams at the point. Most importantly, the substitution of Varez Ward for Gary Johnson little more than a minute before had created a mismatch for Damion James, with the larger, much less athletic Bryan Davis attempting to check him. As Davis attempted to get into the body of James far out on the perimeter, James used the bounce to get into the lane, coming under control and making a difficult, off-balance jumper in the lane while being fouled by BJ Holmes, attempting to pick up the offensive foul. With a made free throw completing the conventional three-point play, Damion James was in rhythm and unleashed.

Press almost successful

For the first time in the three Aggie possessions since the Longhorns started pressing, they almost got a steal in the backcourt, as Abrams deflected a pass into the air secured by Josh Carter, who broke the pressure with an outlet pass. A double screen for Carter caught Abrams out of position, and Carter rattled home a three in the corner to cut the Longhorn lead to 44-40.

James stays aggressive

Building on his success from the previous possession, James caught the ball on the right wing on a pass from Justin Mason and without hesitation took the slow-footed Davis off the dribble, drawing a foul and earning a trip to the free throw line. Already confident in his stroke from his previous free throw, James buried them both, stretching the Longhorn lead to 45-40 and necessitating a seat on the bench for Bryan Davis, with Nathan Walkup checking into the game.

Half court defense causes turnover

While the Longhorns weren't able to trap in the back court, their defensive intensity remained high in the half court, as Nathan Walkup started the problems by attempting a post entry pass to Carter from the top of the key, a poor angle for such a pass. Carter recovered the ball in the corner, but threw it away under pressure from AJ Abrams, with Justin Mason making the steal.

From defense to transition

Great passing by the Longhorns, as Mason found Abrams after the steal, who in turn found James running the right wing slashing left and finishing with a left-handed layup over Walkup, stretching the Texas lead to 48-40. In all, Mason used two dribbles after the steal, Abrams passed ahead to James without a dribble and James finished after one dribble, illustrating perfectly the old basketball adage about how the ball moves more quickly when passed than when dribbled. Mark Turgeon got himself a timeout.

Double team forces bad shot

Unable to pressure with the ball inbounded at half court, the Longhorns instead turned to the double team against Junior Elonu, forcing a three-pointer by Derrick Roland that clanged off the front of the rim. After several deflections, Justin Mason came out with the ball in transition.

More Damion James

In a story becoming increasingly redundant, Damion James used his mismatch against Junior Elonu to exploit the Aggie defense. As Elonu lost James while ball watching on the left block, James wisely cut to the strongside of the court, using a rolling Connor Atchley as an impromptu screener and knocking down an easy, uncontested seven-footer off the pass from Varez Ward, stretching the Longhorn lead to 10 for the first time.

Pressure finally forces bad shot

The Aggies broke the trap in the back court, but the ball ended up in the hands of Nate Walkup, who made a poor decision by attacking the basket against a recovering James and lofting a horrible right-handed floater over Atchley from the left side of the rim that never had a prayer of going in. The Longhorn pressure finally accelerated the tempo of the Aggies and forced them to play too fast.

More transition and more James

Smartly pushing the ball in transition after the defensive rebound, Varez Ward attacked the final Aggie defender, who tried to pick up the offensive foul as Ward left the ball at the rim for Damion James to finish with an alley-oop dunk on the break, essentially ending any Aggie hope on the evening and putting the Longhorns up 52-40.

The Verdict

Rick Barnes made a masterful decision to go with a smaller lineup and institute the full court pressure defense. The smaller lineup created a mismatch on the perimeter with James going against Bryan Davis, who never had a chance to stay with him. James has struggled dribbling past guards and small forwards in his transition full-time to the perimeter, but Barnes can create favorable match up for him during games by going to smaller lineups. The move worked so well that Davis eventually ended up on the bench and Nate Walkup came in the game and played poorly, taking one bad shot and making another bad pass that lead to a steal on the next pass, while failing to successfully challenge James on his left-handed layup.

The other benefit of the smaller lineup came defensively. After two successful possessions, the Aggies only scored three points in the six possessions they had on offense after Barnes went to the smaller lineup. The Longhorns only forced one turnover during that stretch, but it took the Aggies out of rhythm offensively and forced a quicker tempo to the game that eventually favored Texas and the ability of James to finish in transition. And that's exactly the point -- trapping defense takes the opposing team out of their comfort zone and forces them to make uncharacteristically bad decisions that lead to easy points. Of the 11 points scored by James, four of them came in transition and two of his free throws came on early offense against Bryan Davis after a push in transition.

By the time that Josh Carter made another three-pointer after the timeout following James' fast-break dunk, the game was already out of reach. By contrast, the Longhorns did not fail to score during that time, as James went on a personal 11-0 run, with a dunk, layup, two short jumpers, and three free throws during that stretch.