AUSTIN, Texas — In a game that didn’t go to plan for the No. 18 Texas Longhorns against the Delaware State Hornets on Friday at the Moody Center, head coach Rodney Terry’s team started slowly, struggling mightily with turnovers, and then failed to create any real separation until a 25-1 run that started with 8:33 remaining.
Texas shot 58.6 percent from the field in the second half, including 11-of-12 shooting during the decisive run, and also 7-of-9 three-point attempts after halftime.
Senior guard Max Abmas led the Longhorns with 19 points, scoring 12 points in the second half on 4-of-4 shooting with three of those makes coming from beyond the arc. Sophomore forward Dillon Mitchell also had a strong second half, scoring 12 of his 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting while adding seven of his game-high 11 rebounds. More than just serving as a finisher, Mitchell also helped keep the ball moving, tying for second on the team with four assists, tied for his career high.
The 3-2 Delaware State zone had Texas reeling early before a strong recovery
Coming out of a blowout loss to Penn State on Monday during which Delaware State nonetheless forced 21 turnovers by the Nittany Lions, the Hornets set a clear tone early by coming out in a 3-2 zone anchored by 6’10 and 6’11 forwards with a 6’6 guard at the top of the circle. On the second possession by Texas, Delaware State made clear its intention to force ballhandlers towards the sidelines across halfcourt to trap them. And it quickly became clear how dangerous that trap was going to be for the Longhorns when junior guard Tyrese Hunter tried to pass out of it on the sideline and turned it over.
Texas went on to turn the ball over eight times — more than half of its possessions — by a timeout by Delaware State with 12:40 remaining in the first half on the way to starting 3-of-11 shooting with nine of those attempts coming from beyond the arc. In other words, the Horns both lost composure in protecting the basketball and settled for the outside shots that the Hornets wanted them to take.
“The one area that was glaring was the turnovers were just too casual and we didn’t take care of the basketball, whether it was coming to the floor, attacking the pressure,” said Terry. “They tried to kind of run and jump a little bit over halfcourt and then went to the zone.”
The Longhorns ultimately finished with 20 turnovers, 28.2 percent of their possessions for the game, with Hunter turning the ball over five times, Mitchell turning it over four times, and senior guard IT Horton also turning it over four times.
As the game went on, however, Texas did a better job of using the fundamentals required to attack the zone — working in the middle and the short corner and using better ball movements and overloads to stretch the primary 3-2 zone and the secondary 2-3 zone used by Delaware State.
Getting the ball into the middle of the zone was a particular focus as the Horns adjusted to the zone.
“One thing we emphasized was the middle was open a lot. That was our first time seeing a zone defense, so we had to face some things that we never seen before. I think we handled it well, we’ll be able to learn from it going forward,” said Mitchell.
“But having shooters out there in the perimeter, it spaces out that middle for players like me and Brock (Cunningham) to flash in there and try to make plays, be a playmaker. So that’s what we emphasize — we’ve got to get to the middle, we’ve got to get to the middle. They wanted us to shoot those threes. They wanted us to take tough threes. So we emphasized trying to get the ball to the middle.”
It paid off with eight combined assists from Mitchell and Cunningham, who also scored 20 combined points, largely from successfully working through the middle in the spaces created by the perimeter shooters.
“We did a great job of attacking and we were very efficient if you look at our numbers, obviously we were very efficient tonight against the zone,” said Terry.
Texas shot 52.8 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from three, mostly in the halfcourt offense against the zone since Delaware State played well enough in transition to limit the Longhorns to 11 fast-break points. The efficiency was perhaps even more impressive considering that Texas only had six dunks and 24 points in the paint — the Horns hit their jump shots and weren’t doing it off the dribble with 22 assists on 28 made baskets.
The Longhorns defense didn’t play a complete game
During a Wednesday media availability, Terry discussed the importance of transition defense at length, adding holding opponents to under 30 percent from three-point range, overall field-goal percentage defense, and limiting offensive rebounds as key areas of emphasis for the Longhorns.
Against a Delaware State team that shot 28.8 percent from the field in the season-opening loss to Penn State and scored only nine fast-break points, Texas was inconsistent defensively despite forcing 21 turnovers. The Hornets limited their three-point attempts to nine against the Longhorns after taking 16 and making only one against the Nittany Lions, but also shot 40.4 percent for the game and outscored Texas in the paint 28-24.
At one point early in the second half, just as the Horns were trying to create hard-earned separation from the Hornets, Delaware State made 6-of-7 field-goal attempts with three layups and two of the team’s three made three-pointers — during that stretch, Texas struggled to defend the three-point line and the paint.
But then the Longhorns started to really lock in defensively, holding the Hornets to 1-of-14 shooting with six turnovers between a made three-pointer by Jevin Muniz with 14:03 remaining and a layup with 1:47 left in the game.
Unsurprisingly, that stretch coincided with the game’s most decisive run, a 25-1 surge by Texas over 6:22 that featured stifling defense and an efficient offensive performance with 10-of-11 shooting. The defense didn’t necessarily directly produce offense — the Longhorns didn’t score any fast-break points during that stretch, scoring only one fast-break basket in the second half — but the best defensive stretch of the game did overlap with the best offensive stretch.
What changed for Texas?
“I just think our energy, having a different type of energy, having a different type of mindset coming out,” said Mitchell. “We knew the team was gonna come in and try to wreck our season and that’s not what we wanted — we came together too much, so I think it was just our energy, our mindset coming together.”
The Longhorns also did well on the defensive glass, holding the Hornets to eight offensive rebounds (a 25.0-percent offensive rebounding rate) despite a team emphasis on crashing the glass by the visitors — Delaware State secured 17 offensive rebounds against Penn State, 36.2 percent of its misses.
“RT emphasize that throughout the whole week,” said Mitchell. “This is a crashing team. We’ve got to block out, we’ve got to get those rebounds.”
IT Horton is a crucial piece of this team
For the second straight game, the 6’5, 200-pound senior from New Jersey turned in a strong performance, finishing second on the team in scoring with 18 points after leading Texas in scoring with 17 points in the season opener. Horton was efficient, too, hitting 5-of-8 field goals, including 5-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, while adding three assists and three steals, though he did suffer from some of the team’s turnover woes with four giveaways.
Horton is now averaging 17.5 points per game on 61.5-percent shooting from three with five steals and six assists in two games, acclimating himself quickly and proving that he can serve as one of the team’s lead scorers and most efficient shooters. He’s not just a complementary piece, similar to how Sir’Jabari Rice grew into a critical scorer and playmaker for Texas last season.
“We’d like to think that he’s just not a good shooter, we think he has the chance to be an elite shooter,” said Terry.
Even though Horton has played in over 100 career game for four different programs — arguably helping him fit in quickly on the Forty Acres — there is perhaps untapped upside for Horton as a defender that he can unlock throughout the season.
“He’s one of those guys that also we’re challenging to play really hard on defense as well. In our program you can’t just rest on defense, you’ve got to come back and play just as hard on defense as you play on offense,” said Terry. “So, I think between he and Max, those guys are learning to play on both ends of the floor and conditioning themselves right now to be able to still make shots throughout the course of the game even extending that kind of energy on the other end of the floor.”