AUSTIN, Texas — As a cold day turned into a colder evening, the Texas Longhorns went cold from the field in the first half, shooting only 29.6 percent, but a strong second half keyed by sophomore guard Courtney Ramey and a strong response to a late run by the Cal Baptist Lancers helped the Longhorns to a 67-54 win at the Erwin Center on Tuesday evening.
Ramey led Texas in scoring with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting — his career high in points and made baskets — after hitting his first six shots in the second half, many on drives to the basket after the Longhorns settled for 16 three-point attempts in the first half, hitting on only two. The sophomore added six rebounds, three assists, and two of the 11 steals for the Horns.
“He’s good. He’s a confident player,” Cal Baptist head coach Rick Croy said. “When you’re training defensively to start the year, you tell your guys that ultimately you’re going to run into perimeter players that can shoot it, drive it, and make shots off the dribble. He’s that. He’s very confident, they give him space, and he’s got the green light. He plays the right way — he’s not just throwing ‘em up, he’s knows what he’s doing, he knows where to find his gaps and his slots, and he played on his front foot tonight. He played really well.”
At halftime, Ramey said the players and Smart emphasized sticking with the offense and that shots would start falling, but Ramey ended up taking it upon himself to get to the basket as Cal Baptist made defensive adjustments to put more coverage on the Texas perimeter shooters.
“I just think I took my opportunities,” Ramey said. “My teammates, we’ve got great shooters — Jase, Andrew, and Matt, so they stayed home, allowing me to drive, then when you’ve got Jericho down low, they have to stay with him or I can throw the lob. It freed me up, so I just had to play off my teammates.”
Texas also received 11 points apiece from sophomore guard Andrew Jones and junior forward Jericho Sims, who also recorded 11 rebounds for his first career double-double. In the second half, Sims was more aggressive going up for dunks around the basket, at the encouragement of his teammates, after missing four of his six shots in the first half.
“A guy that looks like he’s starting to take advantage of his opportunities,” Croy said of Sims. “Playing hard, looks like he’s figuring it out, looks like he’s connected with his teammates. He’s force — he’s hard to score over and it seems like he’s really active when he’s off the ball. He’s got a lot of skills that are going to help the Longhorns.”
Most importantly, Croy said that Sims is competing at a high level and looks like he’s found his confidence, two areas where Sims often struggles as a result of his low-key personality and penchant to disconnect when he becomes frustrated.
On Tuesday, it was sophomore forward Gerald Liddell who suffered the most from his frustrations — Smart felt that he played frustrated after missing his first shot in the paint. Liddell also spent most of the game in foul trouble that limited him to playing only 19 minutes. He finished with nine points on eight shots and also turned the ball over twice.
Consider it a growing experience for a young player who Smart says is extremely hard on himself and set an extremely high standard with his remarkable performance against Purdue.
After entering halftime with a 26-22 lead because the Horns shot only 28.6 percent from the field in the first half, it was Ramey who started out the second half by driving to the basket and finishing at the rim with a slick layup. Another drive produced a kick out to sophomore forward Liddell, who sunk his first three-pointer of the game. Another drive produced a basket by junior guard Matt Coleman, then Ramey took his turn to score on another drive.
As a result, the first nine points of the second half by Texas were all scored in the paint or included a paint touch as the lead stretched to 13, the largest of the game to that point.
Cal Baptist was able to mount a comeback by hitting four of five three-point attempts to cut the Texas lead to 50-47, prompting a timeout by Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart with 7:22 remaining.
Coming out of the timeout, however, junior guard Jase Febres hit from the corner for a much-needed basket after missing four of his first five attempts from beyond the arc and Texas forced a turnover on the other end before capitalizing on a second-chance opportunity when Coleman found Sims for a dunk.
The Lancers were never able to get closer than seven points for the rest of the game.
As Cal Baptist cut into the lead, Ramey and his teammates fell back on the experiences of last season, when Texas gave up big margins against teams like Radford by not maintaining a high level of intensity by trying to treat every team like it’s North Carolina or Kentucky, Ramey said.
The result of those growing experiences was a more poised team on Tuesday.
“I really liked the look of our guys’ eyes during the timeout,” Smart said. “They were poised, they were determined, they knew what we needed to do. I told them, ‘Some of you guys have phenomenal experience in these situations, so now’s the time to use it.’”
And they did.
Overall, the Texas defense was able to force Cal Baptist to shot 34.5 percent from the floor while forcing 16 turnovers, including 10 by the experienced lead guards for the Lancers. The Longhorns aim for 32 deflections in every game and had 39 on Tuesday — the defense had extremely active hands. As a result, a team that entered the game averaging 102.5 points in its first two contests was held to 54 by the Horns.
“I think they’re committed defensively,” Croy said. “They made it real hard on us. We like the three ball and they put a tremendous amount of focus on taking away the three and making us shoot over hands. They’re long and athletic.”
Smart said that when the Longhorns gave the Lancers open looks, Cal Baptist took advantage virtually every time. So this is a game that Texas could have lost had it let those experienced, aggressive guards get more open looks from distance.
Of course, taking away those three-point attempts is the primary feature of assistant coach Luke Yacklich’s defense, but it’s keyed by the ability of Texas defenders to guard one on one.
“They don’t help a lot, so they don’t come off guys,” Croy said. “For some teams, that’s hard to do. A lot of teams defensively, they need to help each other a lot. These guys can lock up the ball, they’ve obviously put a lot of work into it, they’ve been well coached, but they’ve accepted they challenge to guard people one on one with great pride and to do it with foul discipline. That’s hard to do.”
Once again, that one-on-one defense and ability to play without helping forced Cal Baptist to play one-on-one offense — the Lancers only had seven assists on 20 made baskets, in part because of the high effort level by all five players on nearly every possession, Croy said.
Offensively, Smart said it’s a fine line between continuing to take open shots that aren’t going in and instead abandoning the three-point line to get the ball into the paint. For this Texas team, however, it’s all about the identity defensively.
“I thought tonight we really started the game with the defensive intensity and effort that we demand of our guys,” Smart said.
There was some frustration because shots weren’t going in, but the growth for players like Febres is that they don’t have to rely on making shots to give defensive effort. After finishing and losing 10 of 16 close games, the Longhorns will have more chances to win those games if it maintains its early-season defensive intensity and execution.
“We’re three games into our season,” Smart said. “We have a lot of growing to do, a lot of improving to do, but I like the fact that our guys understand that our anchor is defense. They understand that we’re best when we play ‘We over me offense,’ and they know we’ve got to get better.”
Texas returns to action on Friday at the Erwin Center against Prairie View A&M.