December 14, 2008

The BIG Review: Horns slip by Bobcats

Some days you've got it and on other days you don't.

After a grueling stretch of games against ranked teams played in three different time zones and a battle with finals in the classroom, the No.6 Texas Longhorns didn't have it on Saturday in their home game against Texas State.

Against a team that entered the game with a 3-4 record and had lost by double-digit margins to San Francisco and Northern Iowa, the Longhorns had a tough time controlling the tempo and flow of the game, as an early 10-0 lead quickly evaporated and a dog-fight of a game ensued.

They gave up easy baskets, they clanged free throw after free throw in the first half and they were beaten on the glass for the third straight game. The difference in those games was that there's no disgrace in getting beaten on the boards by ranked teams, but this was a team from San Marcos - not Los Angles or Philadelphia.

Of course, the thing that both of those teams from the big city learned is that when it comes to making a difference, few players in the country are outperforming Texas senior A.J. Abrams.

Now the Bobcats know the same as the others do.

The former Round Rock McNeil star hadn't made a basket through the first 15 minutes of the second half, but with the Longhorns clinging to a 65-63 lead, Abrams flipped the switch and poured in 13 of Texas' final 16 points, as the Longhorns escaped with a 81-73 win over the scrappy Bobcats.

Abrams, who is averaging 29.0 points per game over course of his last three games, made 11 of 12 free throws in the final 3:11.

While Abrams was the deal-closer for the Longhorns on Saturday, the player that carried them for much of the game was junior center Dexter Pittman.

The big fella scored a career-high 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his first career double-double in 14 minutes of action.

Even with Abrams and Pittman playing at all-star levels, the outcome of the game was very much in question in the final minutes, as the Bobcats cut the lead to two with 5:03 left behind the play of Cameron Johnson (24 points) and senior guard Brent Bush (18 points).

After Johnson's lay-up closed it to 65-63, the Longhorns went on an 11-1 run that essentially ended the Bobcats' hopes for pulling off one of the biggest wins in school history.

Inside the Numbers

The Longhorns finished the night 23-of-64 from the field (35.9 percent), 6-of-17 (35.3 percent) from three-point land and were 29-of-42 (69.0 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns beat the Bobcats in points of turnovers (15-10), transition points (20-16), second-chance points (13-12), blocks (9-2), steals (7-5), forced turnovers (21-13) and assists (13-12). The Bobcats outrebounded Texas (46-42) and outscored them in the paint (44-28).

Star of the game

It would be easy to make a special selection of Pittman for his amazingly efficient performance, but this team's star is Abrams and it's impossible to ignore the fact that when this game was close in the final minutes, it was his offense and his defense that got the team rolling. Abrams was so good in the final four minutes on Saturday that he actually single-handily turned around the team's free throw shooting woes, as the team percentage went up nine points in the final three minutes of the game. It's hard to imagine where this team would be without their small Mr. Big, but he's quickly emerging as a first-team All-America candidate for the Longhorns.

Unsung hero

Although he was one of six from the floor, junior point guard Justin Mason made a lot of non-scoring plays against the Bobcats, as he dished out a career-high nine assists, grabbed seven rebounds, made four steals and didn't commit a single turnover in 34 minutes.

Rough night at the office

After a really though night against Villanova earlier in the week, the Longhorns were hoping for a stronger performance from fifth-year senior Connor Atchley, but he only played 14 minutes against Texas State and is still trying to find his role on this year's team. Atchley finished with two points, three rebounds and three blocks

The elephant in the room that we have to discuss

Yes, Mason had his fingerprints all over the stat sheet on Saturday night, but the point guard position was a black hole in the scoring department.

If you take Mason's one for six night in the shooting department and combined it with the shooting efforts of back-up point guards Dogus Balbay and Varez Ward, you've got a two-for-14 performance, including zero makes in six tries at three-point shots.

As the season continues, we all know that Mason is going to have better nights from the floor, but at some point the two young back-ups have to start giving the team a little more offense than they've been able to provide thus far this season because when some of the stars on this team went cold for much of the game, there wasn't anyone to help pick up the slack.

Balbay is probably the guy that has to figure out some middle ground on what he's currently providing as a defender and not providing on offense. At this point, teams are not even considering putting a defender on Balbay and he's shown no desire or skill to step forward and punish teams that offer such little respect for his offensive skill.

There's no question that Balbay is a better offensive player than we've seen thus far in the early stages of this season, but if he can't start giving the team something on the offensive side of the court, it's hard to imagine that he's going to see more than the 11 minutes of action that he received Saturday. In fact, don't be shocked if his minutes decrease if the Longhorns continue to have to play four on five on the offensive end when he's in the line-up.

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 58.4 percent clip for the season.

The good news for the Longhorns is that they shot 29 of 42 (69 percent) from the line on Saturday to boost their season percentage to 60.6.

Top three plays of the night

Bronze - At the tail end of Texas' 13-2 run that put the game away in the final five minutes of the game, freshman Varez Ward made a wildly athletic block of TSU's Ryan White short jumper with his right hand that seemed to symbolize the increased defensive intensity that the Longhorns put forward as a team in the final moments of the game.

Silver - Of Pittman 17 points on the afternoon, none were better than the hoop and hard he created when he surged through the lane and knocked down a jump hook with a defender draped all over him. Pittman knocked down the free throw for the conventional three-point play and it gave the Longhorns a 58-54 lead.

Gold - It happened in the blink of an eye, but when A.J. Abrams ripped off a steal from Texas State's Ryan White and knocked down a quick three-point shot in transition, it was all the senior needed to flip the switch on the microwave because his shot was simmering the rest of the night.

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 four occasions against the Bobcats.

Here's tonight's scoreboard:

Damion James - 2
Dexter Pittman - 1
Clint Chapman - 1

Here's the season scorecard:

Damion James - 13
Dexter Pittman - 9
Justin Mason - 5
Clint Chapman - 4
Gary Johnson - 3
Connor Atchley - 2
Alexis Wangmene - 1

The BIG number

31.

That's how many more points the Bobcats received from the bench on Saturday than the Longhorns. Overall, the Texas bench was outscored 43-12.


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