March 19, 2009

The BIG Review: Texas takes down Minnesota

Consider the opponent in Thursday night's 76-62 first-round victory over Minnesota. But also take heart.

Dexter Pittman got Texas going early and finished with a double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds). Damion James hit from outside and inside. A.J. Abrams showed why he's the Big 12's all-time leader in 3-pointers made. The Longhorns got back to rebounding. And Dogus Balbay even hit a 3 - his first of the season. Balbay hadn't even attempted a 3 since December. He was 0-3 on the season coming into Thursday.

By the time the Longhorns were done with their media responsibilities in Greensboro, N.C., Duke was already out to a big lead on Binghamton. The Longhorns are 0-3 all-time against Duke with the average margin of defeat 28.3 points.

But after a Big 12 Tournament in which Texas was outrebounded badly on the offensive glass, struggled against pressure defense (22 turnovers vs. Kansas State) and saw A.J. Abrams, Damion James and Dogus Balbay all have their season averages reduced, Texas needed confidence. And the Longhorns got it against an offensively challenged Minnesota team.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

There was reason to be concerned about Damion James heading into the NCAA Tournament. He had been averaging 18.1 points and 12.4 rebounds in the eight games leading up to the Big 12 tourney and averaged just 9.6 ppg and 7.3 rpg in three games in Oklahoma City last week.

But after missing his first two shots, including a layup, as Minnesota built a 10-point lead (13-3), James settled down - from 3-point range of all places. His first two made shots were 3s. Then, he got back to attacking the rim and finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.

That's huge for Texas, which will need James at his VERY best Saturday against second-seeded Duke.

STAR OF THE GAME

Abrams opened the game 1-of-5 from the floor. But that trend wouldn't last. With Texas clinging to a 47-44 lead with 13 minutes left, Abrams went nuts. He hit four straight 3s in a span of 2:11 and broke the game open - 59-44 with 11:01 left.

Abrams finished 9-of-19 from the field, including 8-of-15 from 3, for 26 points. Abrams also added three steals. Abrams will need to continue to have a big impact if Texas wants to take down Duke.

UNSUNG HERO

Varez Ward did a solid job of running the point. So solid that he ended up coming off the bench and playing 26 minutes - seven more than starter Dogus Balbay played. Ward played nice defense on Minnesota's perimeter players and ended up with 7 points, three rebounds, four assists, one steal and one turnover.

TOUGH DAY AT THE OFFICE

Balbay struggled some in this one despite hitting his first 3-pointer of the season. Balbay had 5 points, three rebounds, three assists and four turnovers.

THE BENCH

Ward and Connor Atchley were the stars off the bench for UT Thursday. Atchley had three points on a dunk and a free throw and finished with four rebounds (three on the offensive end) in 10 minutes of play. Clint Chapman played eight minutes and grabbed three rebounds, going 0-of-2 from the field.

Texas has to find a way to get Gary Johnson going again. He was averaging 11 points, 5.7 rebounds and 24.1 minutes per game going into the Big 12 Tournament. But over the last four games, Johnson has averaged just 4.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 16.5 minutes per game.

Johnson was a virtual non-factor in the Minnesota game with two rebounds and two turnovers.

TOP THREE PLAYS OF THE GAME

Bronze -
Dogus Balbay hitting his first 3-pointer of his career at Texas - and it was a deep 3 from 24 feet - with 5:04 left in the first half to put UT up, 28-26.

Silver - Dexter Pittman missing a reverse layup, gathering his own rebound, inadvertently elbowing Ralph Sampson III and splitting Sampson's chin on his way up for a thunder dunk with 2:29 left.

Gold - The 12-0 run by A.J. Abrams on four straight 3s over a 2:11 span that broke open Texas' lead from 47-44 to 59-44.


LONGHORN DUNK-O-METER

Dunks against Minnesota:

Dexter Pittman - 3
Connor Atchley - 1

Dunks for the season:

Dexter Pittman - 43
Damion James - 42
Connor Atchley - 8
Gary Johnson - 8
Justin Mason - 7
Clint Chapman - 6
Varez Ward - 1
Alexis Wangmene - 1

THE BIG NUMBER

11-of-19


Texas hit just 11-of-19 free throws (57.9 percent). It didn't haunt the Longhorns against Minnesota the way missed free throws haunted UT against Baylor in the Big 12 tourney semis (12-of-18) in a 76-70 loss. But the Horns had better improve on those totals to keep advancing.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

This was a pretty solid effort. Again, it was Minnesota, which lost eight of its last 12 and probably should not have gotten a tourney bid, let alone a No. 10 seed. But Texas got solid efforts from key players who will have to keep Texas rolling going into Saturday's second-round game. All-in-all, a big, positive step after UT's fizzle against Baylor in the Big 12 semis. The fact Pittman was 7-of-12 shooting with 11 rebounds in 30 minutes is a great sign that he can put it in the books on a consistent basis. Texas will have to keep being aggressive and attacking the rim against Duke to help free up Pittman. Texas failed miserably against Kansas State's pressure, when it had 22 turnovers. The way to beat a pressure defense is to attack it. The Horns will have to remember that against Duke, when the Blue Devils are extending their defense all over the half court. But if Texas plays Saturday like it did against Minnesota, the Horns have a chance to move on and end their three-game losing skid to the Blue Devils.

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