The opening game in Texas head coach Shaka Smart’s fourth season was a night of several firsts.
It was the first college game at Texas for five different players, it was junior guard Andrew Jones’ first game action since his leukemia diagnosis, and was also Texas’ first win. Thanks to a 15-3 run to end the first half and a strong beginning to the second half, Texas was able to defeat Eastern Illinois 71-59.
Texas started out playing at a fast pace on offense, but struggled early to get good looks early in the shot clock, playing even with the Ohio Valley Conference team. The Longhorns didn’t look hampered on offense like they often did last year, but passed up several scoring opportunities with more passes.
At a certain point, Smart removed much of the thought process for the Longhorns by emphasizing a much quicker pace, and his team took off as a result. Sophomore Guard Matt Coleman hit a three, and after freshman forward Jaxson Hayes blocked a Panther at the other end, Coleman completed a three-point play to push it to six.
“At times we got sloppy, but I think we learned how good we can be when we play at the pace we want to play and we defend at the level we want to defend at,” sophomore guard Matt Coleman said. “Now it’s just getting better. Today set the bar. Now we’ve just got to build off of it.”
Texas then started pressing EIU, who couldn’t handle the Longhorns’ length and athleticism advantage. Texas scored five more points to complete a 15-3 run over three and a half minutes. The Panthers’ only points came at the end of half on a long three at the buzzer.
The press continued to fluster the Panthers in the second half. Texas continued to build a 20-point lead over the first ten minutes of the half, taking control of the game both on the boards and in transition.
“We played 15 minutes of really impressive basketball for November 6,” Smart said. “Obviously, the goal is to extend that to 40. We have a long way to go to get to that point, but I would say that’s the case for almost anyone this time of year.”
Hayes’ played 20 minutes, splitting the game evenly with sophomore Jericho Sims, who Smart admitted after the game did not have his best performance. Where Sims struggled, Hayes excelled. In his first career action, He was 5-for-9 with 12 points, four rebounds, and a team-high two blocks. Several of those points came from oops from Coleman, junior Elijah Mitrou-Long, and freshman Courtney Ramey.
“He’s really good in the air,” Smart said of Hayes. “He’s a very good roller. He can go up and get it. They’re pretty good in practice at throwing it to them. Tonight, it was a little gun shy.”
Mitrou-Long and Ramey also played well in their first action at Texas. Despite being the shortest scholarship player on the roster, Mitrou-Long pulled in a team-high six rebounds while also adding nine points on 4-of-8 shooting. Ramey showed skill in moving the ball, utilizing the no-look pass several times including one that found Hayes for an easy slam.
The performances of Coleman, who lead all scorers with 13, Hayes, and Mitrou-Long stood out, but the game’s most significant moment came with Texas holding a 21-point lead with 11:40 left in the game.
Following a TV timeout, Jones checked into the game and received a standing ovation from the Erwin Center crowd.
“We wanted to give him an opportunity to get out there and play,” Smart said. “When he checked in, I just kind of looked at him and it just hit me – it hit a lot of people probably in the building — that this guy was laying (sic) in a hospital bed a matter of months ago, and now he’s out there in a Texas uniform. That’s obviously bigger than how he played or anything results wise.”
He quickly got involved in the action on the court, gaining possession for Texas by forcing a jump ball. He even got in the scorebook with a made free throw. Whatever his contributions on the court were far less important than the fact he was simply playing basketball at Texas once again.
Others making their first appearances at Texas included Ramey (7 points, 6 assists) and Kamaka Hepa (6 points). Ramey was the first player off the bench for Smart, scoring quickly within his first few minutes of action. Hepa was 2-of-3 from three-point range, an attribute he showcased in high school in Alaska and Oregon.
For Smart, all of these factors contributed to a solid start for the Longhorns 2018-19 season.
Texas will travel to Fort Bliss in El Paso to take on Arkansas in the Armed Forces Classic Friday night. Smart spoke about the opportunity in front of his team
“Phenomenal opportunity that we get to take part in,” Smart said. “Our guys, this is going to give them a real sense of perspective because we’re going to spend a lot of time with the service men and women at Fort Bliss. We’re staying on the base. We’re going to get a chance to hear from some of the commanding officers there.”