The Longhorns' veteran players faced a tough challenge on Sunday - getting up for a game against the Rice Owls (2-4) after the Maui Invitational and before the looming showdown on Thursday with UCLA. With A.J. Abrams saddled with foul trouble and playing only 25 minutes, and Connor Atchley and Damion James logging about the same playing time, the Longhorn bench had to step up.
Needing energy and inspired play off the bench, the Longhorns received it in spades Sunday afternoon from backup guards Dogus Balbay and Varez Ward as well as one of the top sixth men in the country in Gary Johnson.
The Longhorns (5-1) received instant contributions from Balbay and Ward upon entering the game on both ends of the floor. Balbay was a pest on the defensive end as always with a highlight reel blocked shot and a pair of steals, but also contributed on the offensive end with penetration and timely passes to teammates for scoring chances. Balbay took only two shots from the field, converting both, dished out four assists, recorded three steals and the high flying blocked shot.
Ward joined the production of Balbay with a career-high eight points to go with three rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. Ward, like Balbay, put the ball on the floor and attacked the Rice defense.
Along with Balbay and Ward, Gary Johnson provided what has become consistent production off the bench. Johnson scored 12 points and pulled down eight rebounds, both slightly above his season averages.
Texas got off to a slow start on both ends of the floor against the Owls. Texas could never gain control of the game in the opening half and trailed 19-17 with 10:06 to play after a third three-pointer by Rice forward Lucas Kuipers.
Ward tied the game at 19-19 with a driving score and the Longhorns then went on a mini-run to take a lead they would never relinquish.
Balbay scored two straight baskets and Johnson followed with a bucket to give the Longhorns a 25-19 lead with 7:08 in the half.
Kuipers then knocked down his fourth three-pointer of the half to pull within 25-22 before the Longhorns strongly closed out the half, including a three-pointer by Justin Mason with six seconds remaining giving the Longhorns a 37-30 advantage headed to the locker room.
Texas opened up a double-digit lead they would never surrender in the opening minute of the second half after back-to-back Abrams jumpers.
The Longhorns began hitting the offensive boards and getting to the free throw line in the second half as the lead continued to grow. The Longhorns ended the game with a 77-56 advantage and a 38-20 advantage on points in the paint against an Owl team that fired three-pointers and connected on eight to keep the game within 20 points in the second half.
Kuipers led the Owls with 19 points on 7-11 shooting and was the lone Rice player in double figures.
The Longhorns were paced by a balanced attack with five players in double figures. Justin Mason continued his torrid stretch with a game high 14 points. Johnson joined the junior in double figures with 12, James 12, Atchley 11 and Abrams 10.
A Look at the Numbers
Texas connected on 49.1% (27-55) from the field, 31.3% (5-16) from three and 75% (18-24) from the free throw line.
The Owls knocked down 33.3% (19-57) overall, 32% (8-25) from the three-point line and 71.4% (10-14) from the foul line.
Texas won the battle of the boards 38-33 and the turnover battle 13-8. The Longhorns scored 15 points off of turnovers to seven by Rice.
Justin Mason continued his torrid stretch of play over the last three games. The only starter for the Longhorns that performed up to expectations Sunday, the junior scored 14 points, pulled down six rebounds, dished out four assists and recorded three steals.
Mason had a highlight reel dunk again on a fast break, chased offensive rebounds, attacked off the bounce going right and hit two key three pointers. Mason played the passing lanes to near perfection in the first half as he made two steals with the outside hand, kept the deflection alive and then led Texas on two fast break scoring chances cashing both in.
Gary Johnson again brought physical play on both ends, rebounding and scoring off the bench. On Sunday, Johnson even made a couple of nice kick out passes from the post, with one being a weak side pass for an easy scoring opportunity.
Dogus Balbay played his best all-around game as a Longhorn. He made three driving dishes for assists, defended the ball as he has done all season, chased rebounds with more energy and recorded three steals.
Connor Atchley was more accretive on the offensive end in limited minutes. He looked to post more than the last couple of games and knocked down two long-range jumpers with one off the glass.
Varez Ward looked to be a scorer more than in prior games. Ward made two very nice passes off of penetration. He played under more control than the first four games of his career.
The Longhorns overplayed on defense in the first half and the result was too many straight line-driving opportunities. Rice didn't have the players to take advantage, but the straight-line driving chances were more than any other game to date.
Texas was caught in aggressive hedges on several occasions in the first half. Rice did a very good job of using Kuipers to create separation and he knocked down the three point opportunities. The defensive rotation was a split second late all game, but Rice does deserve some of the credit for spacing the floor correctly and passing the ball out of the aggressive hedging with the proper timing.
Dexter Pittman and Clint Chapman again weren't productive in their time. Pittman scored six points, but struggled on defense against a smaller Rice team that had their mind on attacking him. Pittman is really going to struggle if he has to play away from the basket and help on ball screens and then recover and rotate.
Damion James returned to the play off the dribble that plagued the Longhorns in games against St. Joe's and Notre Dame. James committed three unforced turnovers again with the miscues coming off the dribble. The attempted penetration was forced, as it has been for the most part this season. James is really struggling when he gets into the middle of the lane and pulls up his dribble. His reaction to the help defense is too slow to make a play for a teammate.
The Longhorns got their fifth win of the season and will have three days off before the 8pm Thursday night showdown with UCLA in Austin. The Bruins and Longhorns will be one of the top defensive battles of the young college season with both teams featuring several on the ball defenders that create problems for the opponent.
The extended playing time for Balbay and Ward is huge as their development is going to very key headed into the last half of non-conference and Big 12 play. The Longhorns now must have Clint Chapman step up and add key minutes of consistency off the bench.