January 24, 2009

The BIG Review: Texas A&M

Rick Barnes was walking out of Cooley Pavilion at 10 p.m. Friday night and saw Damion James sitting at a computer instant messaging with a friend.

"I told Damion, 'I feel you're about to take it to another level,'" Barnes said after Saturday night's 67-58 victory over Texas A&M in front of a sellout crowd of 16,755 at the Erwin Center. "You've really been practicing well. I like what I'm seeing."

"You can feel that?" James said.

"Yeah," Barnes replied.

All James did Saturday night was score 13 straight points for Texas on his way to 28 as the Longhorns broke open a one-point game and held off an inspired Aggie team.

James, who also had a team-high seven rebounds, was so lost in the game, he asked to come out after he scored his 11th straight point. That was at the 9:25 mark of the second half. Texas didn't score again until James came back in two minutes later. He hit a short jumper to put Texas up, 54-44, with 7:40 left.

"That's maturity," Barnes said. "He knows when he's tired. To be honest, he probably played three minutes too many tonight. I thought he got a little fatigued."

Gary Johnson added 15 points for Texas and helped set the tone with aggressive inside play. Johnson added a block and two steals.

"I knew when James hit those first couple baskets, it gave them an extra scorer," said A&M coach Mark Turgeon. "They've struggled to score the ball. Our whole focus was stopping Abrams, and then James scores 13 in a row. We turned it over during that stretch and couldn't afford to. We did a good job on Abrams. We were willing to roll the dice with James and Johnson, especially with Chin (Elonu) back there blocking shots.

"Damion hasn't shot the ball as well this year as he did last year, but he did tonight. That (Dexter) Pittman kid is a load, too. Their depth was a little better than ours. They played five bigs in the first half, and my two bigs (Chinemelu Elonu and Bryan Davis) were warriors. But they had a lot to handle."

Barnes said he and James talked Friday night about how people are going to start speculating if James, a junior, is going to jump to the NBA after this season.

"Of all the guys we've had in this situation, Damion is the least affected by it," Barnes said. "He's totally focused on getting better because he doesn't want to just go to the NBA. He wants to stick in the NBA, and Damion has a really good support cast around him. I'm not worried about him being distracted by it all."

Barnes also took the blame for "mishandling" James by benching him early in the Longhorns' loss at Oklahoma.

"I messed that up," Barnes said. "I told him if he didn't do things exactly the way I wanted them, he would be sitting down. You can't coach like that. He was a little jumpy and let Austin Johnson go right by him for some easy baskets.

"But there is nobody who wants to please like Damion. He was just trying too hard. I should not have been so aggressive with him. But the great thing about Damion is he said, 'I want you to be hard on me because I want to get better.' I just love the kid."

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

Texas A&M came out on fire, hitting 54.5 percent of its shots in the first half and trailed only 30-28 at intermission. Barnes then made the decision to start pressing A&M point guard Donald Sloan in the second half as well as trap Aggie big man Chinemelu Elonu.

Elonu scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first half and had only one point in the second half. UT's press also forced eight, second-half turnovers by the Aggies, which Texas turned into 15 points. A&M shot only 36.4 percent in the second half.

"We could have doubled Elonu earlier and gone to the press earlier," Barnes said. "That was just me being stubborn and thinking we could guard some guys one-on-one."

STAR OF THE GAME

James was the obvious star of the game, but let's dig a little deeper and give the star of the game award to A.J. Abrams. Abrams and Dogus Balbay handled the majority of the point guard chores and combined for eight assists and one turnover. (Abrams had four assists and one turnover, while Balbay had four assists and no turnovers).

Abrams was only 3-of-10 shooting for nine points as A&M had three different players shadow him and deny him the ball. But Abrams had a team-leading three steals along with four rebounds. Abrams also shadowed A&M sharpshooter Josh Carter all night defensively, holding Carter to 3-of-8 shooting and nine points with two turnovers.

UNSUNG HERO

Dexter Pittman played only seven minutes in the game, but he made the most of them - scoring seven points and grabbing four rebounds (three on the offensive end) along with a block. Pittman's big body helped serve as a deterrent to A&M big men Bryan Davis and Elonu. One nitpick - Pittman missed two point-blank layups and needs to forget about laying it in and go up and jam it.

TOUGH DAY AT THE OFFICE

One game after exploding with his first career double-double in a victory at Texas Tech, Justin Mason was out of synch. He had three horrible turnovers and was only 1-of-3 shooting with two rebounds in 27 minutes.

Mason also guarded Sloan most of the night, and Sloan got loose for 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting. There will be better days for Mason.

TOP THREE PLAYS OF THE NIGHT

Bronze -
Abrams also came up with the play of the game (a little further down), but he also gets the bronze for providing a pump fake on a jumper that he swished at the 12:03 mark of the second half, putting Texas up, 41-36. Abrams is so used to running off screens and rushing up shots as soon as he gets the ball, it was nice to see him up-fake a defender and get his feet set for a shot.

Silver - Connor Atchley was almost non-existent in the first half, going 0-of-1 shooting with one personal foul and one steal in 11 minutes of play. But Atchley showed a pulse in the second half, hitting 2-of-4 shots for five points with six rebounds, a block and a steal. But the silver medal play came with 2:39 left when Atchley, a.k.a. White Out, dove on the floor to tie up Bryan Davis and ended up with his leg around Davis' neck.

Gold - With 6:30 left in the first half and Texas clinging to a 24-23 lead, Abrams stole the ball and went coast-to-coast in transition before finding James for an alley-oop jam that brought the sellout crowd to its feet. It was James' second slam in two minutes.


LONGHORN DUNK-O-METER

We are charting the dunks by the Longhorns this season. Here's a look at Saturday night's tally against A&M:

Damion James - 4

For the season:

Damion James - 27
Dexter Pittman - 18
Gary Johnson - 6
Justin Mason - 6
Connor Atchley - 5
Clint Chapman - 4
Alexis Wangmene - 1

THE BIG NUMBER

4,015


A.J. Abrams reached the 4,000-minute plateau for his career Saturday night after playing 38 minutes. He's closing in on the school record of 4,352 set by Terrence Rencher (1992-95).

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