After a sluggish first half in Thursday night's semifinal win over Iowa, Texas got off to a good start quickly in the championship game of the 2k Classic, jumping out to a 14-4 lead over Cal by the first media timeout en route to a 71-55 victory to improve to 4-0 on the season.
The Horns were without their offensive engine Isaiah Taylor after it was announced on Friday afternoon that Taylor had suffered a fractured wrist when he fell hard to the floor late in the game versus Iowa last night. Reports suggest the sophomore will be out for anywhere between 3 and 6 weeks. For reference, Texas' heads to Rupp to play Kentucky in two weeks, hosts Stanford in 4 weeks, opens Big 12 play versus Texas Tech in 6 weeks, and has its home match up with Kansas in about 8 weeks.
You won't find a bigger Isaiah Taylor Fanboy than yours truly, but I'm glad to say that I was heartened by tonight's victory. As big a loss as Taylor is -- and as much as we'll feel it in trips to Storrs and Rupp -- the foundation of this team's success remains intact, and Rick Barnes' squad won tonight's game against Cal in much the same way they were able to pick off Iowa last night: with suffocating team defense from a deep roster with tons of length. Texas offensive offense last night could have easily resulted in a 15-20 point deficit by halftime but for a strong defensive effort that kept Iowa in check.
The defense was terrific from the get-go tonight, and the Bears -- with a 59.7% effective field goal percentage coming in -- managed just 55 points in 70 possessions, shooting a woeful 31% for the game. If you're scoring at home, after tonight Longhorns opponents are shooting under 30% on the season (72-244, 29.5%), having made just 51 of 170 two-pointers (30.2%) and 21 of 74 treys (28.3%).
We controlled a solid opponent without Taylor tonight with a tried-and-true formula: smothering defense on one end and -- huzzah! -- superior shooting from the foul stripe on the other. Say, what? Believe it: the Horns racked up 37 attempts from the charity stripe and knocked down 30 (81%) to provide the offense their point guard typically brings. Demarcus Holland continued his excellent start to the season with an 11-point, 5-rebound effort featuring a perfect 7-for-7 shooting night from the line, upping his season tally to 13-17 (77%). It was everyone, though: Ridley knocked down 5 of 6, Felix hit all 4 of his attempts, Yancy chipped in 3 of 4, and Holmes led the way by making 8 of 10.
Ah, Holmes. After a truly disappointing effort in the first half last night, Texas' lone senior stepped up in a big way in the second half to lead the rally over Iowa, and was the best player on the court throughout the game tonight, finishing with a game-high 18 points, to go along with 13 boards and 2 blocks, with just 1 turnover and 2 fouls committed. If there was some debate as to whether it was Taylor's team or Holmes' team, or both, or whatever... all that's over now. This is Jonathan Holmes' team until further notice, and you have to love the way he's stepped up and into that bigger role this season.
Hat tips as well to Connor Lammert and Kendal Yancy, who were both quietly strong contributors for the fourth straight game. Lammert in particular is doing so many things for us that matter, and he's still got his best basketball in front of him. Yancy, too, who has been impressively steady, exceeding my expectations in a number of ways. He came across as a mature, controlled player as a recruit, but has embodied it more than I anticipated.
All in all, a successful weekend in New York City, marred only by the loss of Taylor. There's no way to put lipstick on that pig, and it could very well be an injury that winds up costing us dearly in our quest for a protected seed, but this team may well develop and win enough while he heals and wind up even stronger upon his return than had he never left. We'll see, but tonight was certainly a good start.