November 25, 2008

Horns can't quite climb mountain in loss

With high's in the mid 70's to low 80's in Maui, the weather certainly might have reminded anyone from the Lone Star State of a classic spring day.

That's fitting because the No.6 Texas and No.8 Notre Dame put on a performance in the second round of the Maui Invitational that was straight out of a scene from late March.

Irish 81 Longhorns 80.

In a game that will make both teams better for having been involved in such a high-level, early-season showdown, the Irish were able to escape when Texas senior guard A.J. Abrams' shot from the other side of half-court hit the front end of the rim as time expired.

After 40 minutes of back-and-forth action, Irish coach Mike Brey appeared to be out breath, while Texas coach Rick Barnes could only grin from ear-to-ear.

"We're disappointed with the loss but it was to a seasoned, experienced team," Barnes told reporters after the game. "I thought we did some good things and I wasn't surprised we fought back."

With less than 45 seconds to play, the Longhorns were trailing by eight, but sequence of three-point shots, two by Abrams and another from Justin Mason, cut the lead to 81-80 with five seconds left in the game.

After Irish All-American Luke Harangody missed two straight free throws, the Longhorns had one final three-point look, but Abrams last-second heroics literally came an inch short.

"I did think it was going to go, but you never know when you have to take it from that far," Abrams said.

While the level of play was like an NCAA Tournament game throughout, the one-point loss shouldn't overshadow the fact that the Irish led for most of the night and when it came to executing down the stretch, the Irish did all of the little things better than their burnt orange counterparts.

On two different occasions in the second half, the Longhorns cut the Irish lead to a single point, but they were never able to get over the hump and when the teams got into the final four minutes of the game, Harangody and Co. created separation by executing on offense, getting key stops on defense.

After Abrams made three-point shot at the 4:48 mark to cut Notre Dame's lead to 71-67, the Longhorns failed to score a single point and didn't shoot a single free throw for the next 3:01.

Although the Irish only scored four points themselves during that span, the eight-point lead that was built was just enough to eventually help them escape.

When the dust settled, Harangody and Abrams were the stars of the night, as the Irish star scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Abrams finished with 23 points on five of 16 shooting. Although Abrams didn't shoot the ball well for most of the night, the Longhorns might have lost by double-figures without him scoring 11 of the team's final 16 points in the last five minutes.

Leading the charge for the Irish behind Harangody as Kyle McAlarney, who scored 19 points (five of nine from three-point), and Tory Jackson (16 points and seven assists).

Mason finished with 16 points, while junior Damion James finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Longhorns.

Inside the Numbers

The Longhorns finished the night 32 of 76 from the field (42.1 percent), eight of 25 (32.0 percent) from three-point land and were eight of 14 (57.1 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns outrebounded the Irish 48-37, and beat them in points off turnovers (12-9), points in the paint (36-24), second-chance points (20-7), bench scoring (19-3) and blocked shots (6-2). Both teams did a very good job of protecting the ball, as the Longhorns had nine turnovers and the Irish had only six. The Irish also edged the Longhorns in fast-break points (13-5) and steals (5-4). The biggest difference in the game came at the three-point line, as the Irish hit 11 of 24 shots. Those three extra three's were too much for the Longhorns to overcome.

Star of the game

For the first 35 minutes of the game, junior guard Justin Mason gave the Longhorns everything that Rick Barnes wants from him. For the first time all season, Mason was aggressive on the offensive end; looking for his own shots (16 points on seven of 12 shooting) and creating for others (seven assists). Add in the fact that he only had one turnover in 37 minutes and you've got a stat line that the coaches will love. Also, his three-point shot in the final seconds that closed the Longhorns within 81-80 was his first three-point make of the season. All of that being said, he has to be better than the one of four performance we saw from the free throw line, especially when he came into the game having hit only three of seven shots in the first three games.

Unsung hero

It's really hard to pick someone in this game because outside of Gary Johnson, there wasn't really anyone that came off the bench and gave the team a true lift in scoring, rebounding or defense. Johnson finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes of action.

Pittman paints himself into a corner

One of the biggest disappointments of the night was junior Dexter Pittman, who played in only five minutes because of foul trouble. After picking up two quick fouls in the first half from the 12:43 mark to the 11:15 mark, he repeated the double-dipper in the first 36 seconds of the second half. With four fouls under his belt, Pittman never saw the floor again.

James loses All-America showdown

Entering tonight's game, both James and Harangody were considered potential first-team All-America selections on paper, but only one player played the part on the court.

While James didn't take a shot in the final 6:43 of the game, Harangody took over down the stretch, scoring 13 points in the final 10 minutes of the game, including a near-half court shot that banked in as time expired on the Irish shot clock.

Overall, James was only four of 10 from the field, only got to the free throw line twice and committed four of the team's six turnovers.

The good news is that James continues to play hard on defense and he's been a force on the boards (11).

The bad news is that his overall game through four games doesn't resemble an All-America campaign.

Top three plays of the night

Bronze - With the Longhorns trailing 81-74 with less than seconds remaining, Abrams came off a screen and knocked down a 24-foot shot from the top of the key to cut the Irish lead to 81-77.

Silver - Just when it looked the Irish might pull away from the Longhorns in the first ten minutes of the second half, Mason took matters into his own hands when he crossed over on McAlarney, skied to the hoop, slammed it home and posterized Harangody in the process. That'll make Top Plays.

Gold - Mason gets the gold tonight for his three-point shot that cut the lead to 81-80 with six seconds left.

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 notching four dunks against St. Joseph's, the Longhorns slowed down a bit with only two against the Irish, although the one by Mason was one to remember all season.

Here's tonight's scoreboard:

Justin Mason - 1
Alexis Wangmene - 1

Here's the season scorecard:

Damion James - 6
Dexter Pittman - 4
Connor Atchley - 2
Gary Johnson - 2
Justin Mason - 1
Clint Chapman - 1
Alexis Wangmene - 1

The BIG number

5

I said it in the game preview, but this Texas team isn't good enough on offense right now to not get some easy baskets in transition. Well, against a veteran Irish club, the Longhorns couldn't force turnovers and get their transition offense in action. Those five points on the break are perhaps the best explanation for why Texas trailed for most of the game and by eight in the final moments of the game. The Longhorns simply had to work too hard for their points all night.


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