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No. 19 Texas 80, Rice 64: Three takeaways for the Longhorns

On Jorts Night, Brock Cunningham proved why he’s one of the most underrated players in college basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Rice at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — The No. 19 Texas Longhorns shot 60.4 percent from the field, including an 8-of-10 start to the second half, to pull away from the Rice Owls in an 80-64 victory on Wednesday evening at the Moody Center and move to 3-0 on the season heading into a trip to New York for the Empire Classic on Saturday and Sunday.

Junior guard Tyrese Hunter was one of three Longhorns to score in double digits, leading the team with 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting with three made threes and four assists. Senior forward Kadin Shedrick also turned in an efficient performance, scoring 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting and getting to the free-throw line for nine attempts, converting on six.

Defensively, Texas only forced nine Rice turnovers, a rate of just 13.8 percent, but ran the Owls off the three-point line in holding them to 4-of-22 shooting from three (18.2 percent) and protecting the rim well enough to cause 11 missed layups.

Here are three takeaways for head coach Rodney Terry’s team.

Brock Cunningham is “one of the most underrated guys in college basketball”

On Jorts Night in the Mood, a promotion almost entirely centered around senior forward Brock Cunningham’s preferred sartorial choices, the Austin Westlake product turned in a typically gritty performance — eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, including 2-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc, three offensive rebounds among his six total boards, three assists, three steals, and two blocks in 31 minutes, tied for the third most of his lengthy career on the Forty Acres.

After the game, Rice head coach Scott Pera had high praise for Cunningham.

“They’ve got Brock, who I think might be one of the most underrated guys in college basketball,” Pera said. “I just think very highly of him as a player and as a coach who appreciates a guy like that. He played 31 minutes tonight, right? I mean, they couldn’t take him off the floor. He does damage on the glass, he gets his hands on things, he’s a good defender, he’s smart, he takes good shots, he makes open shots.”

To Pera’s point about Terry’s inability to take Cunningham off the floor, the Texas head coach emphasizes starting well in each half and finishing well in each half, so in order to avoid any drop off defensively with the Longhorns leading by seven points at halftime, Cunningham came out with the starters in the second half, secured a defensive rebound, assisted on the first made three by senior forward Kaden Shedrick at Texas, came up with a steal that led to two free throws by Hunter after he was fouled in transition, then hit a three after another steal that caused Rice to call timeout with the Longhorns leading by 15 points, the largest lead of the game to that point.

“You’ve got to come out and have a level of urgency with what you’re doing and I thought Brock gave us a great lift in the first part of the first half and he was playing really well,” said Terry. “I thought he’d come out and set the tone for us in the second half and he did with communication and playing at a level of intensity that you have to have in those kind of halves and I thought we did a good job of that.”

RT just wants Ze’Rik Onyema to knock some people down

In the second half, junior UTEP transfer Ze’Rik Onyema was called for a technical foul after a physical block that sent the Rice player sprawling onto the floor, one of two blocks for Onyema, who also scored seven points on 3-of-3 shooting.

Terry wasn’t pleased with the taunting aspect of the play, but admitted that he’s challenged Onyema to provide the Longhorns with a physical presence in the frontcourt after working hard on his physical development during the offseason.

“He’s done an incredible job with his body and the way he looks. I want him to play physical and if he knocks some people down and bangs some people around, I’ve got zero problems with that,” said Terry. “I thought he gave us a physical presence tonight and gave us some rim protection. We’d much rather have a stone face after he made a great play on one end of the floor, but nevertheless praised him for having that level of intensity and having that ability to go make plays on the other end of the floor without giving up uncontested layups, so I’m happy with what he’s doing.”

Careless turnovers remain a problem

When Texas is able to get up shots from the field, the Longhorns are extremely efficient offensively this season in going 89-of-164 shooting from the field through three games (54.3 percent) and 32-of-60 shooting from beyond the arc (53.3 percent), truly remarkable numbers that suggests some tremendous offensive upside for this group.

But Terry’s goal is to give up 10 or fewer turnovers every game and against a Rice team that is poor defensively and came into the Moody Center with a serious deficiency in athleticism, Texas turned the ball over 16 times, a rate of 24.6 percent. Sophomore forward Dillon Mitchell was a particularly egregious offender with five turnovers while senior guard Max Abmas had four of his own.

“I do think sometimes we play a little casual with it,” said Terry. “We have to continue to stay locked in with what we’re doing in terms of taking care of the basketball. We’re never going to play a perfect game in terms of turnovers. When they’re basketball turnovers, we have no problem with those, but when there are turnovers where we’re just kind of casual and careless with the ball, those are the ones that we’ve got to cut out and get better with, especially when there’s no pressure that forces us into turnovers.”