James gives Longhorns needed boost
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Senior forward Damion James refused to lose, providing a dominating, above-the-rim performance Wednesday that pushed the confounding Texas Longhorns through the opening round of the Big 12 tournament with what might be considered a head of steam.
Against Iowa State, James was the engine, particularly during a seven-minute stretch of the second half in which he scored 11 of Texas' 19 points. His 3-pointer ignited an 11-0 run after Iowa State had cut a fluctuating deficit to 60-59, finally providing enough breathing room to wrap up an 82-75 victory.
James finished with 28 points and 16 rebounds.
"It's not fun when you're losing, man, and I just felt like we got right back where we need to be, like we were at the beginning of the year, attacking on offense and defense," said James, who became the Big 12 tournament's all-time rebounding leader. "When we're doing that, you're having fun."
The sixth-seeded Longhorns get back at it Thursday at 8:30 p.m. for a quarterfinal game against their newest nemesis, the red-hot Baylor Bears, who pummeled the Longhorns just five days ago.
The Bears spent a leisurely day in Kansas City. They got the blood pumping with an early-morning practice, had lunch and then made a trip to visit young hospital patients at Children's Mercy Hospital, a pediatric cancer treatment center where coach Scott Drew's uncle works.
They took in a half of hoops at the arena and dined at Applebee's before retiring to the team hotel to watch Texas and Iowa State. Ah, such are the spoils of life with a bye.
Remarkably, Texas Tech, Nebraska and Oklahoma State will all have played twice before the Bears make their Big 12 tournament debut as the No. 3 seed, their highest in the 14-year history of the event. The long wait, the Bears assure, won't translate to complacency.
However, if Texas comes in as sluggishly as it started against Iowa State, it could be lights out fast. Texas led 31-28 in a disjointed first half in which the Longhorns shot just 41.9 percent. Guard play again was sketchy, and if the Longhorns took any confidence into the locker room, it's hard to fathom where it came from.
But there was confidence in the end. Texas scored more than 80 points in a game for just the third time since the start of February. Coach Rick Barnes will take as a positive the play from the power trio of James, senior center Dexter Pittman and junior forward Gary Johnson. They combined to make 23 of 40 field goals and grab 31 rebounds. The rest of the team went 7-of-23 with 13 rebounds.
Barnes opted to start the steady Johnson for just the second time this season, and he responded with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists in a career-high 39 minutes. Pittman finished with 16 points and 5 rebounds in just 19 minutes.
Iowa State had no answer for Johnson's midrange game and Pittman inside and on the boards. He grabbed four of his five rebounds on the offensive end and put back baskets on consecutive possessions during the big 11-0 run.
"Man, if Gary and Dexter are playing like that; because both of them can dominate the ball inside," James said. "So we've just got to keep them going."
Texas' guard play continues to be a work in progress, and that could be the kiss of death against Baylor and other tournament teams with strong guard play. Barnes started Justin Mason and Avery Bradley against Iowa State. Bradley played steady enough with 10 points and one turnover in 26 minutes.
But it also has become clear that J'Covan Brown is stuck on the bench. He played just three minutes at the end of the first half and never returned, while Jai Lucas provided a hopeful 22 minutes, a season high, with no turnovers and three assists.
Baylor senior point guard Tweety Carter and junior shooting guard LaceDarius Dunn combine to average 35 points a game. They sliced Texas' defense this past Saturday, combining for 46 of Baylor's 92 points and helping to set up 15 dunks, by Barnes' count, in the 15-point victory.
So as positive as the opening-round win was for Texas, the competition only gets stiffer. The Horns moved to 9-1 against the bottom six teams in the Big 12. But they're 1-6 against the top five, and four of those losses came by at least nine points.
They're also 0-2 against the Bears.
"To be honest, we're just going to come out and play our game. Coach said they had 15 dunks. That's never happened," James said. "So we've got to take it personal."