Facing an experienced, high-scoring team that gained confidence early with a strong first half, the Texas Longhorns did something they’ve struggled to accomplish under head coach Shaka Smart — respond and close out down the stretch to pull out a 87-76 win against the Central Michigan Chippewas on Saturday at the Erwin Center.
After trailing by six points at halftime, Texas out-scored the visitors 51-34 in the second half thanks to big-time efforts from junior guard Jase Febres and sophomore guard Courtney Ramey, aided by eight points from junior forward Jericho Sims. Febres hit three three-pointers in 100 seconds during the decisive stretch and scored 23 points overall on 7-of-10 shooting from deep, while Ramey finished off the Chippewas with two big threes of his own and 18 of his 20 points in the second half.
Ramey added six assists to tie for the team high with junior guard Matt Coleman as Texas shot 50.9 percent from the field for the game and 56 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the defense locked down in the second half to hold Central Michigan to 38.7 percent shooting in the final 20 minutes after the Chippewas hit 53.6 percent in the first half.
In a promising development, Texas was aggressive getting into the paint and earned 31 foul shots as a result, the highest number so far this season. The volume of free-throw attempts was particularly impressive because Central Michigan entered the game as one of the top defenses in the country at avoiding sending opponents to the line.
With a five-out offense that emphasizes taking a high volume of three-point shots, Central Michigan made its first three attempts, including a four-point play on a foul by Sims. Fortunately for Texas, Febres started off hot by hitting his first two from beyond the arc just before Sims picked up his second foul. Coleman then followed with a three of his own to keep pace with the visiting Chippewas.
The biggest issue for Texas offensively leading into the under-16 timeout was valuing the basketball — a handful of careless passes resulted in three steals by Central Michigan and four turnovers overall for Smart’s team. Out of the timeout, pressure on freshman forward Kai Jones after a rebound resulted in another turnover.
Against a team that plays with one of the fastest tempos in the country and entered the game tied for first in Division I averaging 90 points per game, the Longhorns got sped up early and the turnovers were the result. The aggressiveness of the Chippewas also resulted in a second quick foul for sophomore guard Andrew Jones, sending him to the bench with Sims. The two combined to play only five minutes before picking up those fouls.
The result of those fouls and the aggressiveness contributed to seven foul attempts by Central Michigan in the first six minutes of the game before Texas got to free-throw line.
After the last start offensively, the Horns then missed their next six shots, going four minutes without making a field goal, a stretch that also included four turnovers and resulted in a seven-point Central Michigan lead. Ramey finally broke the drought with a driving layup in transition.
In a sign of how things went for the Longhorns defensively in the first half, a deflection from Febres ended up as a perfect pass to a cutting David DiLeo for a layup.
The struggles continued, with Kai Jones and sophomore forward Gerald Liddell picking up offensive fouls, freshman guard Donovan Williams with a bad turnover, and DiLeo continuing his strong performance, hitting a deep three and another jump shot to push his scoring to 12 points in 12 minutes. DiLeo only scored three more points for the rest of the game.
With Texas sitting at 10 turnovers at the under-four timeout, Central Michigan had an eight-point lead thanks to shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and better than that from the three-point line.
The Longhorns had another drought from the field and Liddell had another turnover that led to a transition dunk for the Chippewas, but a fourth three from Febres on a pump fake cut the lead to five with 1:25 remaining in the half. A put-back dunk by junior forward Royce Hamm, Jr. that looked like it was off the rim on replay took points away from Texas as the Horns continued to struggle with getting too sped up — Liddell shot an airball in transition when he got out of control and picked the ball up too early.
At halftime, Central Michigan led by six, 42-36, after holding the advantage for the entire first half.
Texas missed some opportunities to start the second half at the free-throw line and Liddell had his fifth turnover when he passed up an open look and then dribbled the ball off his foot, but Hamm. ignited the crowd with a put-back dunk that counted this time, Febres picked up a charge, Ramey hit a three, and Hamm blocked a shot to send Texas to the under-16 timeout with the game tied.
Hamm provided a boost for the Longhorns with Sims in foul trouble, setting his career high with 12 rebounds — also a Texas season high — but also provided a boost for the Chippewas at times with six turnovers.
Two offensive fouls, one by Hamm and one by Coleman, helped stall the momentum for Texas with the game tied. However, a dunk by Sims after he tipped an offensive rebound to Febres gave the Longhorns their first lead of the game with 14 minutes remaining.
As Texas gained confidence despite some foul trouble, Kai Jones hit the first three of his career. The game then started to open up in favor of the Longhorns as the Chippewas struggled to protect the basketball and to find Febres in transition as Texas mounted a 12-2 run over 2:16 by hitting 6-of-7 shots, including three threes from Febres in 100 seconds. As a result, the Horns held a six-point lead when Davis called a timeout with 7:51 remaining, the largest of the game for Texas.
Jace Febres = Tres Febres— Jake García (@Jake_M_Garcia) December 14, 2019
On the heels of his best game of the season, he's topping that this afternoon.
7/10 from deep, 23 points, helping Texas take the lead in the second half against Central Michigan. pic.twitter.com/m35YARtTKE
A quick surge by Central Michigan cut an eight-point lead to three, but Ramey responded with his second made three of the game. Another made three by Ramey on a rainbow shot clearly deflated the Chippewas as the lead went up to nine and then 11 when Hamm converted two free throws.
Whether it was increased shot credibility by Ramey or just increased confidence on a day when he was battling the flu, those two big threes led to two drives to the basket, one with a finish and a second that drew a shooting foul.
With the Chippewas finally robbed of the confidence generated in the first half, the Longhorns were able to cruise to the victory.
Texas is still looking to put 40 minutes of strong basketball together, but getting Febres on track and Ramey some more confidence after an up-and-down start to this season are both positive signs for the Longhorns.
There have also been too many games during the Smart era in which Texas has failed to respond to opponents gaining confidence early and are now 9-1, the best start since Smart arrived in Austin.
Next Saturday, Texas travels to Rhode Island to face Providence in the second true road game for the Longhorns this season. It will be an opportunity for Texas to pick up a solid non-conference win against a Friars squad off to a slow 5-5 start.