AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Longhorns returned to the hardwood to tip off the 2018-19 basketball season on Tuesday evening at the Erwin Center against the Eastern Illinois Panthers and overcame a slow start to pull away late in the second half and cruise to a 71-59 victory.
As promised by head coach Shaka Smart and the players, Texas looked more like Smart’s old VCU teams than any of his first three squads in Austin — the Horns pressed through stretches of the game, harrying the Panthers into 19 turnovers overall, including two 10-second violations and seven steals.
The addition of ball handlers like junior transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long and freshman Courtney Ramey helped Texas get up and down the court in transition. Four of the five fast break baskets for the Longhorns came in the second half as Texas settled in and got out running. For the game, Texas had nine layups and six dunks.
The ball movement was superb, too, as 20 of the 26 baskets came on assists.
In all, the Longhorns didn’t play particularly good basketball for stretches of the game — the team came out jittery, nervous, and unsure through the first two television timeouts, Smart said. During that stretch, players passed up too many open looks.
Once the team settled down, however, a 22-4 run spanning the halves created the needed separation.
“I thought we played about 15 minutes of really impressive basketball for November 6th,” said Smart. “Obviously, the goal is to extend that to 40. We have a long way to go to get to that point, but I’d say that’s the case for almost anyone this time of year.”
Sophomore point guard Matt Coleman anticipated the slow start thanks to three freshmen playing heavy minutes and Mitrou-Long playing in his first game in a year and a half.
Freshman forward Jaxson Hayes is no longer a secret, though, as promised by Smart — the Ohio native was electric at times, finishing two lobs from Coleman and sparking several fast breaks with dunks. On one in the second half, he sent one shot off the backboard when he closed quickly in transition, then finished with a dunk on the other end.
Hayes played 20 minutes and scored 12 points, finishing second on the team, grabbed four rebounds, and blocked two shots, the only blocks of the game for the Horns.
After the game, Smart wasn’t surprised about how well Hayes played in his debut.
“He’s been really, really good in practice,” the Texas head coach said. “So, it’s not surprising at all, but it’s obviously a great sign to see him carry it over to the game. And he’s capable of even playing better, so his future is really bright.”
Moving forward, Smart wants him to play with more aggressiveness, to play in his stance more consistently on defense, and to focus on grabbing the ball off the defensive glass, as the Longhorns head coach wasn’t happy with the number of offensive rebounds allowed.
Mitrou-Long was also excellent in his own Texas debut after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules following his departure from Mount St. Mary’s. While flashing the best handle on the team, Mitrou-Long keyed the first half run that finally created separation from the Panthers and finished the game with nine points and six assists. All of his points and all but one assist came in the first half.
The leading scorer was Coleman, who hit 2-of-5 attempts from three-point range, adding seven assists and two steals against only two turnovers. He scored 13 points.
The Horns were without senior guard Kerwin Roach II, who completed his suspension for an offseason violation of team rules, and sophomore forward Royce Hamm Jr., who recently suffered a knee injury. Hamm had a successful MRI on Monday and could return for the next game.
The bigger news was the return of junior guard Andrew Jones, who hadn’t played since New Year’s Day against Iowa State as a result of his leukemia diagnosis and treatment. When he entered the game following the under-12 timeout in the second half, he received a standing ovation from the Erwin Center — the only time during the game that the fans truly came to life.
When Jones quickly forced a jump ball to earn Texas the ball, the crowd stirred again in support of the junior.
Jones used a Euro step to draw a foul and made his second free throw before leaving to another standing ovation following two minutes back on the court.
Jones ended up playing eight minutes, finishing with one point after missing both of his three-point attempts.
Early on, the answer to the question of whether the Horns can shoot more efficiently from long distance was to the negative. However, after Texas missed its first four attempts, Coleman hit an open look in transition to end the drought, but the Horns then missed the next two attempts.
Both teams used full-court pressure in the first eight minutes in an attempt to disrupt the opposing offense, with Eastern Illinois playing a 2-3 zone behind the 2-2-1 pressure. Texas had more success, drawing a foul after a steal by Coleman, deflecting a pass, and forcing a 10-second violation.
The defense overall was strong, as the Panthers hit only 2-of-7 baskets through the under-12 timeout, with both makes coming from beyond the arc. However, Eastern Illinois was within a point at 12-11 thanks to four makes in four attempts from the three-throw line. For the Horns, it was more of the same from the last several seasons — split efforts by senior forward Dylan Osetkowski and freshman guard Courtney Ramey.
Throughout the next four minutes, Texas continued to ratchet up the full-court pressure, forcing multiple turnovers. By the time the under-eight timeout arrived, Eastern Illinois was up to nine turnovers total, with most of them coming as a result of the pressure.
Late in the half, following a made three pointer by Ben Harvey, Texas opened up a six-point lead. First, junior transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long made a pull-up jumper, then an open three from the corner. In transition, he found Coleman for a driving basket through contact before finishing near the rim on the next possession. By that point, the Horns had finally created some separation with a 33-25 lead, added to with a three pointer by sophomore guard Jase Febres.
After a second lob from Coleman to freshman Jaxson Hayes, Texas went into halftime with a 38-28 lead thanks to a 15-0 run that was only stopped at the buzzer with a desperation heave by Josiah Wallace. Through the final three and a half minutes, the Horns made 6-of-7 shots, including two of the four three pointers made in the first half.
Mitrou-Long led all scorers with nine points, while Coleman had eight points and five assists.
Early in the second half the lead continued, as Eastern Illinois was forced to call a timeout before the under-16 timeout as the 15-3 run form the first half became a 22-4 run. As the lead stretched to 20 at the under-12 timeout, the Horns were firmly in control of the game and eased their way to the win.
On Friday, Texas travels to El Paso to play Arkansas at Fort Bliss. That game tips off at 6 p.m. Central on ESPN.