At halftime last night in Pauley Pavilion, I sat down to tap out a text message to a fellow LRT traveler who was stuck in Austin for the weekend. “I have a sinking feeling this could be another Kansas or Tennessee,” the message said. Just minutes later, I felt unfortunately prophetic as the Bruins had erased a twelve-point halftime deficit and grabbed the lead with twelve minutes to play.
But this Texas team handled it differently than last year’s squad did in squandering huge leads to the Vols and Jayhawks. They took every punch that the Bruins threw in a brutal heavyweight fight and came back swinging. The Longhorns refused to let UCLA get further than four points ahead down the stretch, putting themselves in position for a game-winning Damion James dunk with only eight seconds left. This team not only weathered the storm; they came out on top for the first-ever road victory over a #1 team in school history.
The blue stars are aplenty in this one, as it seems in retrospect that every player came up with a big moment. Connor Atchley continued his emergence as a breakout star, grabbing four rebounds and scoring nine points — three of them on a clutch trifecta to tie the game with 64 seconds left. But even more importantly, he frustrated Kevin Love on the low blocks and ran a fantastic game in transition. Yet again, Atchley’s performance was so solid and well-rounded that it’s hard to believe this is the same nervous kid from the Elite Eight team.
D.J. Augustin was again the maestro, scoring 19 points and dishing out four dimes in a game with 39 scouts in attendance. While Darren Collison may have been the bigger name coming into this one, Augustin’s stock rose tremendously with those critical eyes watching a gutsy performance that underscored his icy nerves. With roughly three minutes left in the game, the Longhorns trailed by four following a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute layup. Augustin led the Horns down the floor, called out an offensive play, and then quickly drilled a three-pointer over a stunned Collison.
Throughout the second half, Ben Howland had the Bruins increasing their defensive pressure, meeting the Longhorn guards well beyond the perimeter and forcing the issue. At first, Augustin struggled with it, and UCLA clawed their way back into the game. But he remained calm and adjusted, leading Texas through a nerve-wracking final twelve minutes to victory.
Although Damion James will be long-remembered for his dunk off of a missed Augustin shot — or was it a pass? — the sophomore from Nacogdoches quietly kept the Horns in the game with jumper after silky jumper. DaMo has been occasionally utilizing his mid-range game early in the season, but when the UCLA contest became dicey, his 16-foot jumper was the go-to play. James finished the night with 19 boards and ten rebounds in 37 minutes on the floor.
Justin Mason did the little things right in this one, as it seemed like his extra hustle was always the determining factor in a loose ball or a team rebound. Jay chipped in four assists on the night and scored seven, including a big three that kept the Horns in it when UCLA tried to jump out to a commanding early lead.
Combo guard A.J. Abrams had a quiet night by his standards, scoring only seven against a Bruins D that did an excellent job locking down on the hot shooter. A.J. kept them busy though, constantly racing around the court in an effort to get free, which consequently kept the floor spaced out. He did hit a trey in the midst of a 17-0 Texas run in the first half, extending his streak of consecutive games with a three-pointer to 45.
Abrams was especially quiet during a long stretch in the second half, one which further highlighted the importance of Atchley to this ballclub. One of the most important things that Connor does for Coach Barnes is set really solid screens, especially when A.J. is cutting along the baseline to get open in the corner. With Atchley out of the game due to foul trouble, it became even more difficult for a tiring Abrams to outrun defenders and find space. While A.J. might get a ton of the points, just as much credit has to go to Connor for freeing him up.
Clint Chapman had an excellent game in limited minutes, fighting hard for four rebounds in front of his family. Chapman played his high school ball in Oregon, and there were quite a few smiling faces that made the trip and greeted him after the victory. While Clint is still struggling with his role in the offensive sets, his work defensively and on the glass were incredibly important when Atchley’s fouls started to mount.
Even when taking a step back from the individual accomplishments, the picture still remains rosy. An incredibly undersized Texas team took it to the Bruins in this one, actually winning the rebounding battle by a 34-27 count. They limited freshman stud Kevin Love to eleven points and five rebounds, and rendered him so ineffective that he sat the final two minutes of the game.
The Longhorns also pushed the tempo against the slow-down Bruins, which allowed them to build a twelve-point halftime lead behind ten fast break points. But even when UCLA adjusted their defense in the second frame, the Longhorns adapted on the fly and found a way to score buckets. Even with no second-half points on the fast break, Texas managed to win in a half-court battle.
Coupled with a neutral-court win over #7 Tennessee last week, the Longhorns currently have the strongest resumé in the NCAAs. And while there are still two tough tests ahead this month with Big 10 powers Michigan State and Wisconsin, this victory gives Longhorn fans a lot to be excited about. Rick Barnes and his team have shown that they’ve got what it takes to win, no matter what style of game you throw at them. And in a sport with as much parity as college basketball, that’s about all you can ask for on any given night.