An offensive possession nearly 14 minutes into the game encapsulated Texas’ first half on Saturday evening. Mixing dribble penetration with a series of dizzying passing combinations, the Longhorns passed up a couple of 3-point looks against a confused Grand Canyon defense, instead opting to swing the ball around.
When guard Elijah Mitrou-Long received the ball with a few seconds left on the shot clock, he finally jacked up an open shot at the top of arc. And despite the ball rolling around the basket, looking for a way to roll out, it fell in anyway.
All Mitrou-Long could offer was a smile and a shrug.
His three was one of ten 3-point shots that fell for the Longhorns in the first half, the same period where they shot 59 percent from three and 69 percent from the field en route to a 56-point effort. And the Longhorns’ brilliant first half performance spurred one of their best offensive showings of the season, as they cruised to a 98-60 victory against Grand Canyon.
“You don’t want to start the first four minutes in a drought, going one-for-five or one-for-six,” guard Jase Febres said. “We love to see the ball go in the basket. Anytime you get the ball going in, it jumpstarts your offense throughout the whole game.”
For a Texas team that has seen its shots miss the mark plenty of times throughout the early part of its season, perhaps the first half corrected this trend. In Texas’ previous two losses to VCU and Radford, it scored 53 and 59 total points, respectively.
But it also could just be the result of the Longhorns finally executing the offensive style they have been attempting all season long. Shaka Smart’s group looked visibly more comfortable on the offensive end, like it did against North Carolina and in stretches in its winning effort against Purdue.
That all starts with effectively moving the ball around on each possession.
“I think our guys did a good job making the extra pass,” Smart said. “I think we have had some games earlier in the year where we haven’t done as good a job of making the other team defend us. And when the ball isn’t going in as much, and we don't make them defend us, that’s usually not a good combination.”
Texas’ offensive firepower was paired with an equally imposing effort on the defensive end. The Longhorns forced Grand Canyon to shoot just 30 percent from three and 36 percent from the floor. They also won the rebound advantage by a 42-25 margin.
And while the Longhorns contested shots well and interfered in Grand Canyon’s passing lanes, Smart believes his team still has room to make up on the defensive end.
“There’s a lot of areas we still need to continue to improve,” Smart said. “We need to guard the 3-point line better, we need to keep their guys out of the lane better. But that’s what this time of year is all about.”
There will be games this season where the Longhorns certainly won’t shoot 59 percent from the floor or compile a 56-point half. This Texas team is still too much of a work in progress on the offensive end for that to become a consistent occurrence.
But what Smart and his team surely hope is that they can draw lessons from Saturday, grow more confident and sustain the same pace and ball movement in future games. If they can, the Longhorns will be a tough out for any team on their schedule.
“When they come out and they shoot like that, they can beat any team in the country,” Grand Canyon head coach Dan Majerle said. “They have terrific athletes and terrific players, so if they shoot the ball like that, they’re hard for anybody to handle. There’s no way I thought we would be beat like this.”