At Texas basketball media day earlier this week, freshman guard Isaiah Taylor was asked about the changes in the way the referees will call fouls at the college level this year. Taylor first conceded that he had to change the way he played defense. Taylor was a ball-hawk in high school, averaging six steals a game, but he said it was too difficult to play that way without fouling now.
Then Taylor smiled and said that the good news was that opponents would have a hard time staying in front of him without fouling him. The latter part certainly appeared accurate in his Texas debut on Friday, as Taylor scored 17 points — three off Kevin Durant's freshman record for an opener — in leading the Longhorns to a big 76-73 win over Mercer.
"My job is to get into the crack of the defense," Taylor said. "And those lanes were opening up tonight."
Taylor went to the free throw line a whopping 14 times, routinely getting the corner and drawing contact with his quickness and savvy.
Mercer, which returned eight of its top nine players from a team that won the Atlantic Sun Conference with a 24-12 and 14-4 record a year ago, was expected to present a sizable challenge for Texas. And the Bears entered Friday night's game with the expectation to "win every game," according to coach Bob Hoffman.
"It is not a mid-major [mentality] where it is a guaranteed [loss] thinking 'let's just play it close and stack it up at the end, do some thing good, then go home with the [defeat],'" Hoffman said. "That is not what our guys are about, and that is not how we have been able to win on the road in the last few years. Our guys proved how we win tonight. They are special."
Mercer defeated Alabama, Florida State and Tennessee on the road last year, and looked like it might add the Longhorns to its list of victims halfway through the second half. Texas led for most of the game, only to have the Mercer go on an 11-1 run thanks to three straight three-pointers, taking a 62-53 advantage with 9:44 left in the game.
The Bears created that lead with smooth ball movement, starting to pick apart a Texas zone — the Longhorns actually played three different zones through the first part of the game — that largely held Mercer in check early. But after Texas coach Rick Barnes called a timeout, Texas came back out in man-to-man.
The effect was immediate. Texas rattled off an 18-2 run as Mercer scored just one basket in the next 7:21 of game time. Still, after Jakob Gollon bounced in a three-pointer with 1:40 left to cut Texas's lead to 71-69, it became apparent that a young Longhorn squad, one without any seniors and just one junior, was going to have to execute down the stretch to bring home a win.
Again, Barnes called a timeout. And the lone junior came through. Jonathan Holmes, who had missed recent practice time with an injury, popped outside of the three-point line after setting a pick and drained the open look. Four straight Daniel Coursey points meant that Texas had a one-point lead and the ball with 10 seconds left.
For the third time, the Longhorns executed flawlessly after a Barnes timeout. Texas easily broke the press and Demarcus Holland flushed down a dunk with five seconds left for a three-point lead. Connor Lammert then blocked Jakob Gallon's final three-point attempt at the buzzer.
It was a strong final few minutes for Lammert, who also scored four hustle points on tip-ins in helping Texas build its late lead. And Cameron Ridley was especially strong in the second half, scoring six points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking three shots in the second stanza. He had eight, 11 and five for the game.
"I thought Cam was terrific," Barnes said. "I think he was the game-changer tonight. He went and got it. What he did, you could almost feel the bench come alive because he started doing things without the ball."
Holmes and Javan Felix both joined Taylor in double figures with 11 apiece, with Felix chipping in nine assists. Holland had seven points, eight rebounds and two steals, while earning kudos from Barnes for his dominant defense when the Longhorns went man.
Taylor scored 11 of his 17 points in the first half, helping the Longhorns to a hot start, including the game's biggest advantage at 35-23 shortly before halftime. But Mercer closed the first half on a 13-4 run, with star point guard Langston Hall pouring in seven points in 30 seconds.
Hall paced the Bears for the game with 22 points, five assists and two steals. Coursey scored 14 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked two shots. Gollon scored 10.
"We just wanted to come into the game and play hard," Ridley said. "We didn't want to reflect on last season and be that same team. We wanted the fans to see something different from last year when we came off as a team that didn't play hard.
"We want to change that and get back to the way Texas basketball used to be," Ridley said.
Texas (1-0) will next host South Alabama on Tuesday. Game time is set for 7 p.m.