AUSTIN, Texas — On Saturday, Andrew Jones predicted an opening of the floodgates for the Texas Longhorns shooters.
That shooting surge finally came for the sophomore guard on Tuesday night against the UAB Blazers in a 67-57 win at the Erwin Center, as Jones broke out of a six-game shooting slump to tie his career high with 20 points and set a career high with six made three-pointers.
Jones scored his 20 points on only 12 shots, with eight of them coming from behind the arc, a needed performance after starting the season at 28.9-percent shooting from three-point range despite hitting four of his first five three-point attempts in the season opener.
Overall, Texas shot 44 percent from distance and 49 percent from the field after opening up a 17-point lead in the first half thanks to a 16-4 run keyed by three three-pointers from Jones.
Sophomore guard Courtney Ramey added 13 points and four assists, hitting 3-of-6 shots from three-point range, including two in the first three minutes. With Ramey entering the game only 5-of-28 shooting, UAB head coach Rob Ehsan thought that was deflating for his team.
“Texas is a very offensively streaky shooting team,” Ehsan said. “They shot the ball from three as well as they’ve shot, especially in recent games. I thought that was the whole difference in the game.”
Texas finished with a 33-12 margin in made three-pointers as the team tied its season high with 11 makes.
Philosophically, UAB likes to clog the paint defensively in an attempt to limit easy baskets at the rim, a proposition enabled in part by having several competent rim protectors. With sophomore forward Gerald Liddell not currently posing a threat from distance, the Blazers were able to play off of him during his 20 minutes and eventually held the Horns to 22 points in the paint.
Ehsan was hoping to face the same team that shot 29 percent from distance, but instead got a team that shot the ball closer to its capabilities.
After Texas opened up a 17-lead in the first half, UAB battled back to a 13-point margin at halftime and then did what Ehsan’s team did against Kentucky earlier this season, starting the second half with a 6-0 run.
“That run put us back in the game and made us competitive in the second half where we were knocking on the door, knocking on the door to try to tie it up or get close and we just couldn’t do it,” Ehsan said.
Texas junior forward Jericho Sims finally put a stop to that second-half run with much-needed basket in the paint, then continued to find success on post-up opportunities in the second half, scoring two more baskets with his right hand and passing out of a double team to set up junior guard Jase Febres for his only made three-pointer of the game.
Head coach Shaka Smart said throwing the ball into Sims is something that the offense wants to do more of as his confidence grows — he’s now shooting 77 percent from the field, making him one of the most efficient players in the country.
“He’s doing a nice job playing the way that we’re asking to play,” Smart said. “Any big guy, the more you can get them the ball, the more engaged they’re going to be, so that’s something that we need to do more and more.”
The key for Sims moving forward will be to continue unlocking his aggressiveness and continuing to improve on his ability to play hard for longer stretches, an area where he’s grown significantly this season and an area that was the top point of emphasis to Sims by the coaching staff entering his junior year.
As good as Sims was in the second half in scoring eight of his 10 points, it was Andrew Jones who delivered the back-breaker in Ehsan’s opinion — with Texas holding a seven-point lead with 10:20 remaining, Jones bailed the Longhorns out from a poor offensive possession when he hit a 29-footer with the shot clock ticking down. UAB never got closer than that seven-point margin for the rest of the game.
Texas also got four points, three rebounds, three blocks, and two steals from freshman forward Kai Jones, who made a bigger impact on the game than his box score would suggest. Jones had a highlight-reel alley-oop slam from Ramey in the second half, but made his biggest impact on the defensive end with his length, athleticism, and motor, creating multiple deflections beyond his three blocks and two steals.
“It’s amazing what trying hard can do, especially when you have athletic dimensions the way that he does,” Smart said. “We talk about having a standard of competitive effort — he played with that for 19 minutes tonight and that’s why he really helped our team. I thought our team was better defensively when he was in than when he was out and he’s a freshman.”
Jones even hit a turnaround jump shot in the first half as soon as he checked into the game, the first flash of an offensive game beyond his dunking ability.
Smart has already said that Jones possesses as much upside as anyone on the team, but Ehsan took it a step further, saying that Jones has as much upside as anyone in college basketball.
The key moment for Jones in his recent growth came in the week before Texas traveled to New York City for the finals the 2k Empire Classic the week before Thanksgiving. Jones went to Smart and asked him how he could get on the court after playing five minutes in the opener and then sitting for the next three games.
Smart challenged him to play harder in practice. Jones responded and now he’s starting to make significant contributions on the court.
From the team-wide perspective, during the 16-4 run in the first half that stretched the margin to 32-15, Texas was able to string together stops, force steals, and get out in transition. As the Horns started out shooting the ball well — 50 percent from three-point range and 56 percent overall in the first 20 minutes, it was a flash of what this team could potentially become.
“The guys were playing, as we say, aggressive, confident, and loose,” Smart said. “It helps when Andrew is knocking down shots, but I thought there was a good flow. The way UAB plays, it was going to be a lower-possession game, but I thought the guys dug in and were aggressive, got their hands on the basketball, and then on the offensive end, when a play broke down, they got to what we call ‘create an action’ — throwing the ball to the big and then cutting.”
Febres scored two baskets on cuts off the ball in the first half, aided by some good passing from Sims, who has embraced his role at the top of the key and now has more assists this year than he totaled all of last season.
Smart is still looking for more consistent execution defensively, however, after a poor defensive performance against McNeese State that left the head coach noting that Sunday’s film session would include a heavy emphasis on aggressively playing the pick and roll.
“On the defensive end, I would have to watch the tape, but I thought 75 percent of our possessions were really good,” Smart said. “We’re still searching for a 40-minute effort, and I don’t mean effort from a standpoint of trying, I mean from the standpoint of competitiveness, execution, details. But that’s probably where a lot of teams are early in the year. I thought our guys did a much better job on defense.”
The shooting and defensive improvement from Saturday helped provide the final, comfortable margin against the type of team that the Longhorns have struggled against frequently during Smart’s tenure in Austin.
So while Saturday’s win represented several steps back and a small step forward in finishing against an overmatched opponent, Tuesday’s win over UAB showed a Texas team flashing it’s potential while also demonstrating some continued and significant areas for growth.
Texas travels to Fort Worth this weekend for a rivalry game on Sunday against a Texas A&M team that is roughly the quality of UAB in the early going.