If the No.7 Texas Longhorns were hoping to use the Big 12 opener against Iowa State as a way launching pad for a huge Big Monday showdown against arch-rival Oklahoma in a Norman in couple of days, they didn't quite get what they were looking for.
Yes, the Longhorns upended the scrappy Cyclones 75-67, but consider the following:
• Leading scorer A.J. Abrams was held to fewer than 10 points for the fourth time in five games after being limited to two-of-10 shooting from the field.
• Despite facing a team that ranks among the worst in the Big 12 in rebounding, the Longhorns were -4 in that department on Saturday.
• The team is four-of-28 from three-point land in the last 80 minutes of game action.
• The Longhorns were not able to create some lasting separation from the Cyclones until the final ten minutes of the game.
Despite all of that, the combination of junior forward Damion James and sophomore Gary Johnson allowed all of the wiggle room that the Longhorns needed as the two combined for 36 points and 15 rebounds in the win.
"A.J. (Abrams) struggled and I thought today was the first time he was pressing a little bit," Texas head coach Rick Barnes said. "We have some things that are sorting out. Gary Johnson is starting to be consistent. Damion (James) came in and played right where we wanted to play in terms of minutes."
James scored 12 of his game-high 19 points in the second half, while Johnson carried the scoring load in the first half with 13 of his 17 points, as the combo's ability to score points near the rim and with a steady stream of mid-range jumpers proved to be too much for an Iowa State team that was determined to concede open looks by both players in an effort to shut off the Horns' ability to hit the offensive glass.
"I feel like the team needs an extra boost," Johnson said. "A.J. (Abrams) is getting tougher defenders and Damion (James) is also getting tougher defense every night so I feel like somebody has to step up and take on the challenge for us. That is what I'm trying to do for the team right now."
After opening up a 13-point lead in the first half, the Cyclones were able to battle back to within 33-30 at halftime, despite the foul trouble of leading scorer Craig Brackins, who did not convert a single field goal attempt in the second half.
Brackins woke up in the second half and finished with 20 points, which kept the Cyclones within striking distance, but the Longhorns were able to finally cement the victory when they went on 10-4 run over a four-minute stretch in the second half to extend the lead to 58-47.
Although the Cyclones would close the gap to 62-57 with 5:10 remaining in the game, Texas pulled away one final time with a three-point play by Dexter Pittman and a lay-up from senior Connor Atchley.
Up next for the Longhorns is a key Big 12 game in Norman. After losing in Fayetteville on Tuesday and following it up with an uneven performance against the Cyclones, the Longhorns know that they'll need to pick up the pace if they want to remain undefeated in Big 12 play.
"It's going to be great," James said. "It is what you play college ball for these types of games. Oklahoma maybe has the best player in the country with Blake Griffin. He's a great player and that's a great program. It's going to be a great crowd, it's going to be so much fun. I'm looking forward to play against Blake because he might be the best player in the country."
According to Johnson, the game between Big 12 titans will come down to the Longhorns being able to succeed with the basics.
"I think we're ready," Johnson said. "We've gotten a lot better in practice; we've been working on things that we need to get better on. We're doing a good job on improving and if we can play good defense and rebound the ball, the offense will tend to take care of itself."
Inside the Numbers
The Longhorns finished the night 28 of 61 from the field (45.9 percent), three-of-14 (21.4 percent) from three-point land and were 16 of 28 (57.1 percent) from the free throw line. On the other side of the court, the Cyclones were held to 38.8 percent (26-of-67) shooting from the field, 34.8 percent (eight-of-23) from beyond the arc and they shot 58.3 percent (seven-of-12) from the charity stripe. The Longhorns beat Iowa State in points in the paint (34-24), second-chance points (14-13), points off turnovers (11-5), fast-break points (2-0), bench points (23-5), forced turnovers (10-5), blocks (8-0) and steals (4-2). Iowa State bested the Longhorns in rebounding (42-38) and assists (11-10).
Star of the game
It would be easy to go with Johnson, who carried the team in the first half and finished within one rebound of a third straight double-double, but the honor goes to James, who carried the team in the final 20 minutes. After disappearing against Arkansas in the home stretch on Tuesday, James was there at key moments for the Longhorns today. On a day when the Iowa State defense decided that they'd rather have James take a shot at beating them rather than letting Abrams settle into a groove, he made them pay with a confident and diverse offensive game.
It would be too much to say that senior Connor Atchley completely came out of his season-long funk in one game, but after sitting out Tuesday's showdown against Arkansas, he returned to the line-up with a spirited performance that included a team-high four blocked shots and seven rebounds. Atchley only knocked down one-of-four shots from the field, but he was a confident player against the Cyclones and that made most of his 25 minutes good ones.
Tough day at the office
If Abrams thought things were going to be easy when Big 12 play arrived, he learned that he's got another thing coming.
While the Cyclones stuck to him like glue with a stream of defenses dedicated to keeping him from getting quality looks, Abrams pushed the envelope on the offensive end of the floor on Saturday in hopes of gunslinging his way out of a rut.
It didn't come close to working.
In his last five games, Abrams is 19-of-66 (28.8 percent) from the floor and eight-of-31 (25.8 percent) from three-point range.
The elephant in the room that we have to talk about
The Longhorns won on Saturday in spite of the contributions made by the Texas backcourt on the offensive end of the floor.
The quartet of Abrams, Justin Mason, Dogus Balbay and Varez Ward were seven-of-23 from the field and they only knocked down one-of-eight shots from downtown. In addition to their shooting woes, the Texas guards only dished out seven assists for the entire game.
Mason, who ranked fourth in the Big 12 with 5.58 assists per game, was held to two.
Of course, if you're looking for a silver lining, the Texas backcourt only committed three turnovers in 92 combined minutes.
That being said, this Longhorns squad will not win in Norman without a little more help from this group.
Top three plays of the night
Bronze - One possession after bricking a jumper in the first half, Balbay aggressively attacked the rim and converted a soaring lay-up to give the Longhorns a 23-14 lead.
Silver - If you left the game or turned off the game before the final minute, you missed an incredible blocked shot by Mason. As Craig Brackins went up for what he thought was an easy finish at the rim, Mason came out of nowhere and sent his shot packing after it was just inches from going in.
Gold - We haven't given the gold to an opponent all season, but Iowa State's Justin Hamilton had a nasty one-handed poster jam over Abrams that deserves special mention. It was probably the nastiest "poster shot" of the season by an opposing player.
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 throwing down six dunks in their loss at Arkansas, the Longhorns converted four jams on Saturday against Iowa State.
Here's tonight's scoreboard:
Damion James - 2
Dexter Pittman - 2
Here's the season scorecard:
Damion James - 21
Dexter Pittman - 17
Gary Johnson - 6
Justin Mason - 6
Connor Atchley - 4
Clint Chapman - 4
Alexis Wangmene - 1
The BIG number
That's how many minutes Pittman was limited to on Saturday because of early foul trouble. The Longhorns cannot afford for Pittman to pick up two fouls in the first four minutes of the game in Norman.
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