Texas Tunes Up for Big 12 at UTA's Expense

Texas opens Big 12 Conference action on the road this weekend; UT-Arlington was just a speed bump along the way. The Horns parlayed 13-2 runs in both periods to cruise past Mavericks, 84-52, at the Erwin Center Tuesday.

It was the final tune-up before league play begins Saturday at Colorado. Inquiring minds want to know: just how good is coach Rick Barnes' young Longhorn team that starts four freshmen for the first time in program history.

"There's a lot more to like than not to like," Barnes said, citing his club's defensive improvement, ball-handling skills and players embracing their individual roles on the court.

Obviously, there's plenty of room for improvement. Barnes' bunch has a knack for settling for threes against zone teams, going 7-of-25 from outside the arc against UTA's 2-3 zone defense. Barnes needs his club to continue to become a more physical team in the low post, but, as much as anything else, the ninth-year Texas coach is concerned to "figure out a formula for keeping guys fresh while continuing to improve."

The semester break is no holiday for hoopsters because it is the one time during the regular season that NCAA does not curtail time for practice and team meetings.

"I didn't think we had a lot of pop against Centenary," Barnes said of 76-66 methodical win over Centenary on December 28.

And the Horns didn't have a whole lot of pop until A.J. Abrams popped one from three-point range to ignite his club with little more than 10 minutes remaining until halftime. Freshman F Kevin Durant recorded his seventh double-double in 13 starts, posting a team-best 21 points (9-of-18 FG) and 15 rebounds. Yet it was Abrams' timely 20 points (7-of-11) that spared a chilly Longhorn offense in the early going. Silky-smooth point guard D.J. Augustin also scored in double figures with 15 points (5-of-8) and had four assists.

Fan favorite Dexter Pittman registered nine points (4-of-4) in 10 minutes of work as Texas notched 30 points in the paint. The Horns blocked 11 shots, including four from Durant and three from Connor Atchley.

"We're blocking more shots with this team than any team we've had in a long time," Barnes said, "Now, it's got to translate on the offensive end."

Texas showed more of a full-court press than it has in recent outings, forcing 16 turnovers that resulted in 18 points. The Horns were guilty of just eight give-aways on the night. Texas controlled the boards, 49-37, and held UTA to 30.6 percent (19-of-62) from the field.

The young Longhorns upped their mark to 10-3 and remain on the cusp of a Top 25 ranking. Texas has not been listed in the weekly polls since November 27.

"I'm biased," said Durant, "but I feel like we should be in the Top 10. We do a lot of things well. We have more strengths than weaknesses."

Texas misfired on 10 of its first 15 shots, trailing 13-12 midway through the first period, before Abrams drained his first three-ball of the contest. He followed with a steal and a pair of foul shots, notching nine points as part of 13-2 Texas run during a four-minute stretch. Back-to-back lay-ins from C Dexter Pittman gave Texas a 31-20 lead with just under two minutes remaining until the break. The Horns took a 34-23 advantage into the locker room after holding UTA to 27.3 percent (9-of-33) from the field. In fact, the visitors were sharper from outside the arc (4-of-12) than at the charity stripe (1-of-9) during the first 20 minutes of play.

Texas heated up in the second period, knocking down 19-of-34 shots (55.9 percent) to finish at 47.7 percent (31-of-65 for the game). Roger Guignar's third trey cut into the Longhorn lead, 38-32. Augustin responded with a driving lay-up while Durant followed with a turnaround jumper to rebuild the lead at 42-32. Abrams sank a three-pointer from the left corner before Durant's slam on the feed from Augustin made it a 49-35 contest. Abrams' followed his third bucket from three-point range with an old-fashioned three-point play to give Texas a 57-38 cushion.

Consecutive Durant FGs made it a 64-43 runaway. Atchley finally got on the scoreboard on the ally-oop from Augustin. Atchley followed with a trey from the right wing to open up a 75-48 ballgame as part of a 13-2 run. Pittman capped the scoring with a three-point play.

Texas opens Big 12 play, 3 p.m. (CST) Saturday at Colorado. The game is slated for an ESPN Plus telecast.

"I think people are overlooking us because we're young," Abrams said. "At the same time, people watching us have to know we're a force to be reckoned with."

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