The first game of a new, rebuilding era of Texas basketball kicked off with an uneven performance from the Longhorns in a 76-73 win over Mercer.
It was a scrappy effort, as Texas endured multiple runs from an underrated Bears team. Mercer returned five starters, all seniors, from last season, a team that won its regular season conference championship. The Bears would have made the NCAA tournament too, but they were felled by NCAA tournament darlings Florida Gulf Coast in the finals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
“A lot of people look at this [win] and think Mercer,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “But if they know basketball… Especially the way we had to come back.”
Freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor provided the biggest offensive spark for Texas, scoring 17 points while registering two assists and three rebounds. The 17-point effort fell three points shy of Kevin Durant’s record for most points scored in a freshman debut.
“They are calling the game a little more touchy this year,” Taylor said. “So I just wanted to drive as much as I can and draw some calls.”
Texas shot the ball with accuracy from range in the first half, completing 86 percent of its three-point attempts. But a second half performance frequented with missed buckets and off-kilter long-range attempts provided a springboard for Mercer to surge. The Bears took advantage, grabbing a nine-point lead midway through the second half after an 18-2 run.
But the Longhorns endured Mercer’s swell, and pushed back thanks to a timely defensive alteration. Texas employed an aggressive 2-3 zone for the majority of the contest, but when the Bears began their thrust, Barnes switched to a man-to-man defense. This kept Mercer off the three-point line, where it had shot 6-of-9 from deep in the second half up to that point, and forced the Bears to attack the basket and challenge the Longhorns’ length inside.
The Bears made another run late, but sophomore forward Connor Lammert swatted away a game-tying three-point attempt in the final seconds.
Texas shot the ball inconsistently during the contest, but the team’s ability to attack the basket provided consistent results. Taylor, especially, assaulted the basket with ease, creating lanes inside with his crafty ball handling and quick first step.
“Texas did what they’re going to do all year, attack the basket with their big-time athletes,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said.
The team’s ability to penetrate created open shots on the outside, helping Texas to shot 47 percent from behind the arc. But when the Longhorns went cold from deep in the second half, sophomore center Cameron Ridley’s presence inside made the difference. Ridley only had eight points, but his 11 rebounds and career-high five blocks altered the game, forcing Mercer away from the basket.
“He went and got it,” Barnes said. “What he did, you could almost feel the bench coming alive.”
All 10 Longhorn scholarship players saw action in the win, including heavy minutes from each of the four members of Texas’ freshman class.