November 24, 2008

Horns handle business in Maui

In football there's a saying that speed never had a bad day.

With the game of basketball the same can be said about defense. Shooters will go cold, an offense can get stagnant and the basket might look like it has a lid on it, but if a team is playing great defense they've got a chance to win any game.

The No.7 Texas Longhorns put that single principle on display in their 68-50 stomping of St. Joseph's in the opening game of the Maui Invitational on Monday.

The Longhorns did get stagnant at times on offense against the Hawks, they did only connect on 42.9 of their shots fro the field and they did turn the ball over 16 times. All of those things being said, the Longhorns cruised to victory because their defense suffocated their third straight opponent with some of the best team defense that any Rick Barnes team has displayed at Texas.

That's obviously saying something.

How good were the Longhorns on the defensive side of the ball? After giving up an average of 44.5 points and 28.7% from the field in their first two games of the season, the Longhorns might have stepped their level of play up to an even higher level against the improved competition, as they held the Hawks to 29.3% shooting from the field and forced 18 turnovers.

After the game, Barnes was pleased with his defense, but seemed to have his focused to his team's problems and not their strengths.

"We turned it over way too many times," Barnes said. "We have to cut that down. Defensively we gave the effort we wanted and we got good play off the bench, but the turnovers were just careless mistakes. We have got to value the basketball. We're too good a team to score 68 points. We can fix that."

Leading the way for the Longhorns on the offensive side of the ball was senior A.J. Abrams, who knocked down six of 13 shots, including four of seven from downtown. The former Round Rock McNeil star scored 17 points, while adding four rebounds, three assists and only one turnover in 36 minutes.

The top player in the frontcourt for the Longhorns was sophomore Gary Johnson, who came off the bench and scored 14 points in 23 minutes (on five of right shooting) and grabbed 10 rebounds. Fellow forward Damion James started out one for 10 from the field, but he eventually got it going and finished with 16 points on five of 15 shooting.

The Longhorns will now face No.8 Notre Dame in the semi-finals on Tuesday at 6pm on ESPN.

Inside the Numbers

The Longhorns finished the night 24 of 56 from the field (42.9 percent), six of 14 (42.9 percent) from three-point land and were an improved 14 of 19 (73.7 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns outrebounded the Green Wave 39-38 after having a 21-13 edge at the half, and beat them in points off turnovers (21-16), transition points (16-4), second-chance points (10-6), bench scoring (26-11) and steals (10-9). Neither team protected the ball especially well, as the Longhorns forced 18 turnovers, but turned it over 16 times. The Green Wave did edge the Longhorns in points in the paint (20-18) and both teams blocked six shots.

Star of the game

It would be easy to go with Abrams, whose shooting early in the game carried this team to an early lead, but if you want to talk about efficiency, nobody played a better game than Johnson, who scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 23 minutes. All of the Texas post-players played great interior defense, but Johnson seemed to be throwing his body around in ways that suggested that he was the only man on a court full of boys. Bottom line - if there was a ball coming off the rim, Johnson was going to get it, and his size and defensive skill gave all of the Hawks' big men problems. Even more impressive might have been his confidence on the offensive side of the ball, as Johnson aggressively attacked the rim and when he got to the free throw line he took care of business (four of five).

Unsung hero

There was nothing flashy about the play of Alexis Wangmene on Monday. He didn't always look good against the Hawks, but he played his heart out in all nine of his minutes, giving the Longhorns some energy and muscle off the bench. In nine minutes of game action, Wangmene eight points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked a shot and made a steal. There were a couple of "What was that?" moments in this game for Wangmene, but he played hard at all times and didn't turn the ball over when the offense went through him. Barnes will take that every day of the week and twice on Sundays if he can do that consistently as the team move forward.

Balbay still adjusting to college game

After a pedestrian start to his career last week against Tulane, sophomore guard Dogus Balbay continued to look like a player that's trying to adjust to the skill level and style of play of the college game.

The Turkish import didn't score a point and only dished out one assist in 17 minutes, but his defense continues to make him a viable option for Barnes off the bench, as he blocked two shots, made a steal and played outstanding on-ball defense while he was on the floor.

Top three plays of the night

Bronze - Balbay might not have had it cooking on offense in this game, but he showed his athletic ability and skill as a defender when he came out of nowhere to throw a shot by Darrin Govens into the stands.

Silver - After a steal by Connor Atchley, the Longhorns got their transition game, as Abrams made one of the smoothest no-look passes he's made in a Longhorn uniform in four years and fed a trailing Johnson who slammed it down to finish the play.

Gold - Abrams drew comparisons to George "Ice Man" Gervin in the second half when he sliced through the line and converted a beautiful finger roll into a three-point play, as he drew a foul on Idris Hilliard and knocked down the free-throw.

Longhorn Dunk O'Meter

All season long we plan to keep a running tally on which Longhorns are flying above the rim the most. After soaring through the air for 10 dunks against Tulane, the Longhorns slowed down a bit with only four against the Hawks. Their three-game average this season stands at 5.33

Here's tonight's scoreboard:

Gary Johnson - 2
Damion James - 1
Clint Chapman - 1

Here's the season scorecard:

Damion James - 6
Dexter Pittman - 4
Connor Atchley - 2
Gary Johnson - 2
Clint Chapman - 1
Justin Mason - 1

The BIG number

73.7

That was Texas' percentage from the free-throw line, as they knocked down 14 of 19 shots, including a perfect seven of seven in the second half. That might not sound like a big deal, but that's major progress for this team.



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