December 16, 2008

The BIG Review: Abrams and Mason soar again

A few days ago when No.5 Texas took on Texas State, there was a feeling that the Longhorns kind of sleepwalked their way through the game at times.

On Tuesday night, the Longhorns found themselves in another dogfight with an alleged outmanned team, but this time it had a lot more to do with the team they were playing than it did with them.

Texas Southern might have been winless and they might have already been through the ringer with thousands and thousands of travel miles, but they came to play the Erwin Center.

However, the Tigers learned the same lesson that was taught to the Bobcats on Saturday - not even an inspired effort is going to be enough to upend the Longhorns if guard A.J. Abrams and center Dexter Pittman are going to take turns taking over the game with their surging offensive games.

Abrams had a team-high 27 points and Pittman added 19 points, as the Longhorns (9-1) needed a strong second half performance to pull away in an 88-72 win over the Tigers (0-9).

The Longhorns have dominated teams all season with their strong defensive player, but the Tigers were able to score at will for much of the game and they ended up shooting an almost unfathomable 57.7 percent from the floor for the night, including a ridiculous 72.7 percent in the second half.

Leading the way for the Tigers was senior guard Matthew Miller, who scored a team-high 21 points and seemed to take turns at abusing whatever defender the Longhorns tried to throw at him.

In fact, after trailing by only one point at halftime, the Tigers trailed 42-41 when Miller knocked down a three-point shot with 16:46 left in the second half.

It was at that time that the Longhorns buckled down and started to pull away, as Pittman and Abrams combined to score 31 of the team's 53 second-half points in the process.

Pittman was the guy that got it started for Texas, scoring the team's first nine points out of the second-half gate, while Abrams scored 12 points in the final 7:16.

The only other Longhorn player to score in double-figures was true freshman Varez Ward, who enjoyed a career night with 12 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

Inside the Numbers

The Longhorns finished the night 33-of-59 from the field (55.9 percent), 6-of-11 (54.5 percent) from three-point land and were 16-of-24 (66.7 percent) from the free throw line. The Tigers were 30-of-52 from the field (57.7 percent), 5-of-10 (50.0 percent) from three-point land and were 7-of-12 (58.4 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns beat the Tigers in point in the paint (40-32), points of turnovers (20-9), bench points (18-14), blocks (6-3), steals (5-3), forced turnovers (16-6) and assists (18-16). The Tigers outrebounded Texas (30-25), had more second-chance points (12-10) and transition points (10-4).

Star of the game

On a night when Abrams closed the deal, it was Pittman that often carried the Longhorns on his back when the game was still air-tight. Pittman opened the second-half with nine straight points and continued to cement his position as one of the most important cogs within the team. In fact, if the last couple of games are an indication, he's becoming one of the go-to-guys for Rick Barnes. In 24 minutes, Pittman knocked down seven of nine shots, grabbed five rebounds, and blocked three shots. The only negative on this night was three turnovers and a few bad moments in transition defense.

Unsung hero

Ward enjoyed so much of a Justin Mason kind of night that he was actually about to out-Mason the real Mason, as he came off the bench and scored 12 points, dished out seven assists, grabbed five rebounds and only committed two turnovers. Beyond the numbers, Ward did a lot of little things in this game. He made all of his free throws, he knocked down timely shots (see his three-point shot at the end of the half), he played good defense and he played with the most control that he has showed all season. This kid is really starting to come on at the right time.

For the record, Mason was no slouch on this night either, finishing with eight points, six assists, four rebounds and zero turnovers.

What was that?

Junior Damion James is one of the nation's top players when he's on his A-game, but he wasn't anywhere near that kind of level against the Tigers, as he was 3-of-9 from the field and grabbed only two rebounds in 20 minutes of action. For a guy that is projected as a possible lottery pick, it's hard to fathom how James could throw up a seven-point, two-board game against a 0-9 team. It's the first time all season that James has failed to hit double figures in scoring, but it's not the first time that he's seemed a bit disjointed and caught in no-man's land on the offensive end of floor. With this team 10 games into their season, you would have hoped James was in a better comfort zone in that phase of his game because this team cannot afford for him to take a passive approach when conference season begins in a couple of weeks.

The best sign that you might have missed

In the context of a nine-point, two-rebound night on Tuesday, you might not have thought that senior Connor Atchley had done anything special to help him break out of a season-long funk, but there was a moment in the second half when Atchley seemed to turn a corner.

After converting a lay-up to make it 55-45, Atchley knocked down a three-point shot a few moments later and all of a sudden he seemed to be back in a warm and fuzzy place.

What makes me say that?

On the very next possession on offense, Atchley was not only ready to fire away, but he was calling for the ball. The fact that he didn't get the shot that he was looking for didn't matter because it was a major step forward to see that kind of confidence in his on-court body language.

With Michigan State up next, catching a glimpse of the old Atchley in this game was one of the best things to come out of the win.

The Memphis line

As the national runner-ups from last season, the Memphis Tigers proved that you can go far as a team, even if you're team free throw shooting is pretty terrible.

Yet, as we head into the second month of the schedule, this Texas team has often made the Tigers look like a team of Danny Ainges' from the charity stripe. While the Tigers finished last year with a 61.4 percent mark from the line, the Longhorns entered Saturday's game with a 60.6 percent clip for the season.

The good news for the Longhorns is that they shot 16-of-24 (66.7 percent) from the line on Tuesday to boost their season percentage to 61.2.

If they can get a few more good games at the line under their belt, we might be able to drop the Memphis watch, but just can't right now.

Top three plays of the night

Bronze - Seconds after Texas Southern took their first lead of the game (20-19) on a jumper by Miller, Abrams quickly came down the court, received a pass from Mason and knocked down a three-point shot, while also drawing a foul that created a rare four-point play that gave Texas a three-point lead.

Silver - Pittman had a lot of outstanding plays in this game, but the one that seemed to ignite his level of play came on the back-end of back-to-back misses by James and Abrams with Texas holding onto a slight 40-38 lead. After the second missed shot of the possession, Pittman soared into the air, snagged the ball violently and attacked the rim strongly for a basket and foul. It was a full-grown man kind of play.

Gold - With the Longhorns trailing 34-32 in the final seconds of the first half, Ward knocked down his first three-point shot of the season with one second left on the clock to give Texas a slim 35-34 lead at the break.

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 eight games of the season, the Longhorns threw it down with authority on two occasions against the Tigers.

Here's tonight's scoreboard:

Damion James - 1
Dexter Pittman - 1

Here's the season scorecard:

Damion James - 14
Dexter Pittman - 10
Justin Mason - 5
Clint Chapman - 4
Gary Johnson - 3
Connor Atchley - 2
Alexis Wangmene - 1

The BIG number

-5

The Longhorns have now been outrebounded in four straight games.


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