December 24, 2008

The BIG Review: Horns get big road win

When Rick Barnes' team looked in the mirror on Saturday night, following Texas' 67-63 loss to Michigan State in Houston, they couldn't have liked what they saw.

It was in that nationally televised game that the No.8 Texas Longhorns flinched with the game on the line. They couldn't make shots, they turned the ball over and all of their leaders seemed to be missing in action.

For a team that prides itself on mental toughness, the loss to the Spartans exposed a side of this team that nobody had seen in previous non-conference showdowns with Notre Dame, UCLA and Villanova.

Therefore, with a chance on Tuesday to shake out the cobwebs from the weekend, the Longhorns made good on their attempt to right some wrongs. This time when the game was on the line, it was the Longhorns that made the plays down the stretch and caused their opponents to flinch.

When it was all said and done, the Longhorns had escaped with hard-earned 74-69 win over Wisconsin in Madison for the eighth-ranked team's first true road win of the year. Behind a combined 55 points from the trio of A.J. Abrams, Damion James and Gary Johnson, the Longhorns were able to turn the page on their only true low moment of the young season.

"We didn't want to come in here and let them out-tough us," Abrams said.

Following a three-point shot by Jason Bohannon that gave the Badgers a 67-66 lead with 3:10 remaining in the game, the Longhorns went on an 8-2 run to close out the game. The play that ignited the Longhorns actually came from a source that hasn't provided many big plays through the first part of the season.

With 2:42 remaining in the game, sophomore point guard Dogus Balbay stole an inbounds pass coming out of a timeout from Wisconsin's Joe Krabbenhoft and outraced the defense to the Texas basket, as he scored his only points of the game to give the Longhorns a 68-67 lead.

From that moment on, it was all Texas, as James, Abrams and Johnson combined for the final six points to close the show. Abrams led the Longhorns with 21 points, while James added 18 points and 15 rebounds, and Johnson provided 16 points and eight rebounds off the bench.

Overall, one of the big factors in the victory was Texas' 40-25 edge in the rebounding department.

"(Coach Barnes) showed us a bunch of film, and he said they punked us on the glass," James said. "They pushed us (last year) and we didn't do anything about it."

Obviously, the only pushing around on this night came from the Longhorns.

"They're just so aggressive," Krabbenhoft said. "Those guys go to the glass so hard, and we knew it and we knew we had to check them off. Collectively, as a team, we didn't."

With the win the Longhorns moved their record to 10-2 and get to enjoy a week off for the Holidays, as they don't take the court again until a home match-up on January 2nd against Appalachian State. They'll follow that game up with a road game at Arkansas and then Big 12 play tips off on January 10th against Iowa State.

Inside the Numbers

The Longhorns finished the night 28-of-62 from the field (45.2 percent), 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) from three-point land and were 15-of-16 (93.8 percent) from the free throw line. The Badgers were 23-of-55 from the field (41.8 percent), 9-of-19 (47.4 percent) from three-point land and were 14-of-21 (67.7 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns dominated the Badgers on the glass 40-25, while also edging them in points in the paint (26-22), second-chance points (18-13), fast-break points (8-2), bench points (20-11), assists (15-9), blocks (5-3) and steals (5-4). The Badgers did better the Longhorns in points off turnovers (16-10), while committing three fewer turnovers (13-10).

Star of the game

Against Michigan State, the Longhorns had one player to choose from for the award, but there were a number of star performances on this night and although it's a tough call, the call has to go to James. The junior from Nacogdoches was M.I.A for much of the game against the Spartans, but he was everywhere on this night - making big shots, grabbing even bigger rebounds and providing great defense down the stretch. Given that this game was played in one of the toughest environments in college basketball, this might rank as his best overall performance of the season to date.

Unsung hero

So, that's the Balbay that Barnes has been waiting for all season? The Turkish wonder has left many people wondering all season, but his strong play down the stretch was so vital that this team probably doesn't win the game without his contributions, which is a first. The state line - two points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals don't even do his effort justice. In the final minutes of this game, Balbay was everywhere. He grabbed loose balls, he stole passes and he grabbed offensive rebounds over taller players. The truth of the matter is that Balbay has struggled to find his niche on this team, but that was not the case against Wisconsin because he was the ultimate glue guy on this night. Barnes has to be hoping that this is a breakout performance for his young guard.

Cold night in Madison

The only thing colder than the weather in Madison on Tuesday night was Texas' shooting from behind the three-point line.

While the Badgers were seemingly knocking down three-point shot after three-point shot (nine-of-19 on the night), the Longhorns nearly shot themselves in the foot and out of the game with their troubles behind the arc, as they converted only three-of-16 shots on the night.

Abrams was pretty solid with his three-of-seven shooting, but the rest of the team was an ugly zero for nine.

The best sign that you might have missed

There's no reason to stop the presses with this little antidote, but reserve forward Matt Hill took advantage of Clint Chapman's absence to give the Longhorns a solid seven minutes of action against the Badgers. The stats were modest for sure (two points and one rebound), but Hill played hard and the Longhorns didn't lose much by having him on the court on this night. Maybe the cold weather made him feel at home, but Hill played with more confidence in this game than any I can remember seeing all season.

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 62.2 percent clip for the season.

Well, we might officially be able to do away with the Memphis Watch for a while because the Longhorns were a sensational 15-of-16 from the line, which equates to a 93.8 percent night from the charity stripe.

Yes, let me repeat that one more time. 93.8 percent. From the free throw line. It happened.

With the strong night, the Longhorns were able to move their season percentage to 64.1 for the season. For now, it seems that we can do away with the comparison to last year's Tigers.

Don't ever do that again

In the initial aftermath of the game, Balbay implored James to step on the Wisconsin emblem at half-court, and just like Lendale White stomped on a Terrible Towel after Tennessee beat Pittsburgh in the NFL over the weekend, James took his foot and did the same at center court in front of the entire arena.

Memo to James - show some class next time and remember who you are and who you play for. You're better than that. You're a Longhorn.

Top three plays of the night

Bronze - Connor Atchley had a chance to throw it down with authority in the first half when junior guard Justin Mason penetrated the paint and set the fifth-year senior up with a posterizing jam down the lane.

Silver - Perhaps the play that best symbolized James' effort in this game occurred in the final second of the first half. Freshman Varez Ward airballed a 30-foot three-point shot, but James came flying through the air and tipped the ball into the basket with 0.2 remaining on the clock, ala Dereck Whittenburg, to give the Longhorns a 39-37 lead at the break.

Gold - Give it Balbay for his steal and lay-up that gave the Longhorns a lead that they never gave up.

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 being shut out against the Spartans on Saturday, the Longhorns were back to their high-flying ways, as they responded with four dunks against the Badgers.

Here's tonight's scoreboard:

Connor Atchley - 2
Gary Johnson - 1
Dexter Pittman - 1

Here's the season scorecard:

Damion James - 14
Dexter Pittman - 11
Gary Johnson - 5
Justin Mason - 5
Connor Atchley - 4
Clint Chapman - 4
Alexis Wangmene - 1

The BIG number

93.8

It bears repeating one more time. Texas actually knocked down 15-of-16 free throws in this game. Had I told anyone before the game that it would take a 90+ percent night from the charity stripe to win this game, they probably would have signaled for the beginning of Taps.


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