Strong second half prepares Horns for tonight

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Missed free throws, numerous turnovers, errant 3-pointers instead of working the ball inside — the first 20 minutes of Texas’ opener against Navy on Monday looked like a repeat of last year’s self-destructing team near the end of the season.

“We didn’t fight for space on the floor,” said Texas head coach Rick Barnes. “We didn’t get the ball. We didn’t deflate the defense.”

That all changed after the break. Forward Jordan Hamilton came alive, finishing with 26 points — 21 of which came in the second half — as the Longhorns won their opening game for the ninth straight year under Barnes.

“They kept us off balance a little bit, but we really worked hard on putting the ball inside and we didn’t do that until late,” Barnes said. “Some of that had to do with jitters a little bit.”

The Longhorns settled for 3-pointers in the first half against Navy’s compact zone but only made one of their nine long-range shots.

In the second, they worked inside more and, thanks to dynamic off-ball screens, were able to pick apart the Midshipmen on defense. Texas outscored Navy 40-26 in the paint and got to the free-throw line almost twice as often.

“I thought we did a great job in the first half,” said Navy head coach Billy Lange. “In the second half I think we just kind of lost our way a little bit and stopped competing underneath.”

Barnes hopes the winning ways continue tonight versus Louisiana Tech in the second game of the 2K Sports Classic. As host of a regional, Texas will advance to next week’s championship round in New York City to face Illinois whether or not it wins tonight, but an early-season loss to the Bulldogs would seriously damage the team’s standings. The Longhorns are just outside The Associated Press Top 25 and ranked No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll.

Louisiana Tech defeated Champion Baptist College of Hot Springs, Ark., in an exhibition last Tuesday, but today will be the team’s official opener. Last season it finished 24-11, one loss worse than the Longhorns, and made it to the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.

Tech’s returning leading scorer, junior Olu Ashaolu, is a lengthy forward with double-double potential every night. He finished last year averaging 10.7 and 8.1 rebounds per game.

Luckily for Texas, Hamilton had a coming-out party on Monday night and should prove a handful for the Bulldog defense. Aside from draining buckets, for which he was known last year, the sophomore swingman helped on defense and against the glass.

“Most of the time I’m known as a shooter,” he said. “But I want to be known for more than that, that’s why I crash the boards and try my best out there to defend.”

The California native added 10 rebounds for his second career double-double plus a block and an assist.
“He’s worked hard. From the beginning of last season, through the spring, the summer, the fall — he’s really worked hard,” Barnes said. “Overall he did a lot of really good things.”

Equally impressive in the paint for Texas was senior forward Gary Johnson. Mostly seen as a role player last year, Johnson has stepped up as the team’s front-court leader in practice and exerted his new role on Monday with a 17-point, 10-rebound effort.

“I feel like I’ve been through the most on the team so I think guys look at me in a lot of aspects to try to pull them out of the slumps,” Johnson said. “So I take it upon myself to get us through and I think I did a good job of that.

Texas leads the all-time series versus Louisiana Tech 2-0 but the last time the two met, on Dec. 30, 2002 in Austin, ninth-ranked Texas won by just eight points. A loss tonight would signal a step backwards after Monday’s important win.

“I wouldn’t want to be perfect tonight,” Barnes said after Monday’s game. “We can continue to build towards that, but overall there were a lot more good than bad.”