"I think I got over my jitters last game," Abrams said post-game. "First half I wasn't too great last game but second half I felt a little more comfortable and I guess it just carried over to this game. I wanted to be aggressive. Coach is always telling me to be aggressive and control the offense and take open shots and that's what I did."
It still took a little prodding.
With the Horns holding a too-close-for-comfort five-point lead almost five minutes into the second half, Rick Barnes used a TV timeout to implore his true freshman to shoot!
"He had turned down two, and during that timeout, I told him you better shoot the next shot you have," the Longhorn head coach said. "I told him you better shoot that shot, and the next one he got, that's the one he knocked down. A.J. was really a scoring point guard in high school. He's comfortable coming off those screens on the baseline. When he gets his feet set he's a really good shooter."
That three, one of Abrams' three on the day, started a seven-point Longhorn run that pushed the Texas advantage back to double digits, 49-37. Then, after two LaMarcus Aldridge free throws and a Wolfpack bucket, the true freshman guard took over, popping a 15-footer, knocking down a pro-distance trey from the left side, and then driving the lane and drawing a foul, leading to two charity stripe makes and a 56-40 Longhorn lead. N.C. State, ice-cold from three-point land (3-of-22 for the game), would not threaten again.
For all but about a five-minute stretch in the first half when the Wolfpack cut what was once a 15-point Texas lead to two, 32-30, the Longhorn backcourt played as aggressive as it has all season.
Both Abrams and Daniel Gibson, along with solid shooting, penetrated and dished, setting up the "bigs" for several easy buckets. Abrams, Gibson and Kenton Paulino combined for 13 of UT's 17 assists on the game and were a combined 8-of-18 from three-point land (the Horns finished at 42.1-percent from the arc and 46.4-percent overall).
"Coach challenged the guards, he said we can't go a half without getting any production from our guards so we came out aggressive and played off our 'bigs' and it was a great team effort," Gibson said. "When we are aggressive and our guards are taking shots and dictating the tempo, we play a lot better. When we're playing together as a team and everybody's moving and playing off each other, that's when we're at our best."
Gibson and Tucker both pumped in a team-high 17 points. "Bigs" Aldridge, Brad Buckman and Mike Williams added 10, five and two, respectively. Even though Williams only made the one bucket, he pulled down four boards and contributed a solid 22 minutes off the bench with Buckman in a bit of foul trouble.
"Mike Williams gave us by far and away his best game since he's been at Texas," Barnes said.
Texas outrebounded N.C. State 38-28.
Six of Paulino's eight points came before the break when Texas looked like it might run the Wolfpack out of the building early, opening up a 15-point lead, 20-5, less than eight minutes in. Gibson and Paulino contributed two three-pointers each during the run, but also worked the ball inside to Buckman and Aldridge.
State scored six straight to pull back within double digits, but Texas again pushed the lead to the mid-teens, 27-13, on back-to-back Tucker buckets with just over eight minutes till the half. N.C. State went on a 17-5 surge that shaved the Longhorn lead to just two, 32-30, two minutes before the break but Abrams knocked down a long-range three and the plus-one for a four-point play to pad the cushion before the teams traded buckets to make it a 38-33 Longhorn lockerroom lead.
"At that point in the game, we were kind of struggling so I think that boosted our confidence back up," Abrams said of his long-range drain.
Texas opened the second half strong, extending its lead back to nine, 42-33, by working the ball into the paint for two buckets, one from Tucker off a Gibson penetration and pass, and one from Aldridge, who powered up from five feet rather than relying on the 10-foot fadeaway. The Wolfpack answered with four straight to cut it back to five, but Abrams' out-of-the-timeout three put the Horns on the road to Atlanta for the program's fourth Sweet Sixteen appearance in five seasons.
"The bottom line is we shot the ball well," Barnes said. "We played well. We really did."
No convincing needed here, coach.