December 10, 2008

The BIG Review: Horns flex muscle in the Garden

On a night when ESPN had seemingly reserved an entire night to praising the potent offensive skill of Davidson guard Stephen Curry, it was Texas senior A.J. Abrams that ended up stealing the show at the most famous arena in the world.

In the process, the No.6 Longhorns sent a message to the Big 12 that the conference championship could likely run right through Austin, while also sending notice to the country that they'll be no team's idea of an ideal NCAA Tournament opponent.

One game after tying a career-high in scoring with 31 points against UCLA, Abrams scored 26 points on eight of 18 shooting, while dishing out four assists in Texas' 67-58 win over No.12 Villanova in the final game of the Jimmy Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York.

With the Wildcats having cut the lead to 41-38 with just under 10 minutes to play, Abrams took the game over with a little help from junior forward Damion James.

First, Abrams ended a tough four-minute stretch for the Longhorns when he broke a team-wide one for nine spell from the floor with a three-point shot that extended the Longhorn lead to 44-38.

After a couple of minutes of back and forth action, the lead was sitting at 46-42 when Abrams got into the lane off of dribble-penetration and knocked down a hoop with a foul. After completing the three-point play, the Longhorns were back up by seven and they never looked back.

"Everybody dreams of playing in the prime-time game at Madison Square Garden," Abrams told the media after the game. "It was pro-Villanova but we knew that. When you can play at Madison Square Garden you just don't care who's in the stands just so someone is there to watch you."

When Abrams wasn't getting it done for the Longhorns on the offensive end, James was. The junior from Nacogdoches was an efficient seven of 11 from the field and finished with 16 points. Also, after not picking up a single rebound in the first half, James responded with six in the second half.

"It was just that time of the game," Abrams said. "Me and Damion know we need to step up and our teammates know to get the ball in our hands in certain situations."

Whether it was knocking down a three-point shot or slashing to the lane, James put together perhaps his most offensively diverse night of the season.

Along with the offensive heroics of Abrams and James, the Longhorns were able to pull away from the Wildcats because of their usual defensive might, as they held a potentially explosive offensive team to 38.0% shooting from the field and 22.2% from three-point, while forcing an uncharacteristic 19 turnovers.

It's pretty simple - when you play defense like that, you can get away with a B-level overall performance. You can shoot 41.7% from the field and 45.8% from the free throw line, and still rule a top 15 team with an iron fist.

"There was nothing to be had. You were fighting and struggling for everything you got," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "Our team's got some answers. We can play a lot of different ways. Everybody made a contribution. One thing I know, and we talk about it, is that this team has the makings of being the best defensive team we've had at Texas. We don't have to score a lot. This team is taking on its own identity

Star of the game

Abrams is making a habit of providing big offensive performances in high-profile match-ups and that should serve this team well as they head into conference play. What you had to love about Abrams tonight was the control he had over his entire game. In addition to the 18 second-half points, Abrams had four assists and zero turnovers. The only negative on this night was a six for nine performance from the free throw line. Yet when you look at his performance from the line in comparison to the rest of his teammates (38.5 percent), he comes off looking like Reggie Miller.

Unsung hero

The stat sheet will show a rather modest performance from Clint Chapman in his 16 minutes of action, as he scored only two points on one of four shooting, but the thing that Chapman gave the team tonight was great energy off the bench. The young man has struggled this season to find his way, but he was a cracker jack on the boards tonight with six and his long arms and quick feet bothered the Wildcats on defensive all night. It was easily the best night of the young season for Chapman. He was definitely due for a good night and he certainly had one against Villanova.

Rough night at the office

Connor Atchley is a senior and he has to be a better player than he was against the Wildcats when he recorded zero points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals in 15 minutes of action. The only numbers that showed up in the stat were his four fouls, two turnovers and the overall zero for three night he had from the field as a shooter. On opening night, Atchley looked like this team's best player, but it seems like he's been in a funk pretty much ever-since. If he can get it going this team has a chance to be as good as any team Barnes has had.

The little guys outwork the big guys

The Longhorns figured to have a massive advantage in the front-court over the Wildcats, but the inside advantage did not equate to success on the glass, as Villanova posted a +6 number in the first half and finished with 35-31 edge in rebounds. Although the Longhorns actually finished the game with a 12-11 lead in offensive rebounds, the Wildcats were able to stay in the game for the first 30 minutes because of their second-chance opportunities. Reserve forward Alexis Wangmene's value as a player has never been more apparent than it has the last couple of games when the team has had to play without him. The Longhorns could have used some of his interior toughness the last two games and his absence has been felt on the defensive glass. I'm not sure that the Longhorns knew exactly what they'd be missing from Wangmene when he went out of the line-up, but they do know now and when he returns you can expect an expanded role.

The elephant in the room that we have to discuss

We've talked about how free throw shooting is eventually going to cost this team a win, but the sheer ugliness of Tuesday's night at the charity stripe crossed over into another area.

On some level, don't you have to start making these shots out of principle?

There's simply no excuse for a team of Texas' ability to ever shoot 45.8% from the field. Honestly, even the Memphis team from a year ago thinks the Longhorns need some serious work at the free throw line.

Tonight's abysmal performance leaves the team with a 97 of 166 mark for the season, which translates to 58.4% for the year.

The Memphis team from 2007-08 shot 61.4% from the free throw line for the entire season. Let that sink in for a moment…

Top three plays of the night

Bronze - It was early in the game, but I've got to go with Damion James when he worked the ball inside to Dexter Pittman, who threw down a nasty one-handed dunk that looked like something Shaq would have been proud of.

Silver - When Texas was struggling early in the game and being outworked all over the floor by the Wildcats, Abrams knocked down a three-point shot that ended an 11-1 run and seemed to settle down the troops.

Gold - Yes, it's the three-point play from Abrams in the second half that pretty much propelled the Longhorns to the surge they needed to put the Wildcats away. It was a four-point game when he made that shot in the lane and the Wildcats never got closer than six points the rest of the night.

He said it

"I was very impressed with Texas. I like their overall team defense toughness, aggressiveness on the glass. It's something we take pride in and obviously they're ahead of us at that right now. They really pressured our guards well and they did it with depth. We didn't take care of the basketball and their pressure forced into playing too fast."

Villanova head coach Jay Wright on the Longhorns

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 averaging 4.1 dunks per game through the first seven games, the Longhorns threw it down with authority on five occasions against the Wildcats.

Here's tonight's scoreboard:

Damion James - 2
Dexter Pittman - 2
Justin Mason - 1

Here's the season scorecard:

Damion James - 11
Dexter Pittman - 8
Justin Mason - 5
Clint Chapman - 3
Gary Johnson - 3
Connor Atchley - 2
Alexis Wangmene - 1

The BIG number

27.

The Longhorns scored 35 second half points and the Abrams/James combination chipped in 27 of them.


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