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After a strong defensive first half where Texas allowed 15 points to Northern Colorado, assistant coach Luke Yaklich looked to be Texas’ biggest addition prior to the 2019-20 season. But in the second half, sophomore guard Andrew Jones stole the show.
Playing 29 minutes in his first extended action since a leukemia diagnosis, Jones scored a career-high 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three. Fellow sophomore Courtney Ramey tallied 16 points and 10 rebounds, while junior Matt Coleman added 10 points in Texas’ 69-45 victory.
For Jones, simply stepping on the floor was an achievement. In January 2018, it was revealed Jones had been diagnosed with leukemia. He battled through the disease, completed chemotherapy at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, and re-joined Texas’ roster. He played in two games last season and was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA.
Texas head coach Shaka Smart said Monday that Jones’ jump shot “certainly didn’t go anywhere” while absent from the team, and that became evident during Texas’ season opener.
“He was the best offensive player on the floor,” Smart said. “He played with great energy. He played with an aggressive, confident, and loose mindset which is something hopefully our other guys can take and use as an example.”
Jones’ on-the-court exploits on November 5, 2019 were notable, but for it to happen 23 months to the day since his last extended game action, and for it to happen following a legitimate fight for his life makes it not just notable, but incredible.
“We say response is your ability to focus on the next most important thing,” Smart said. “For the past almost two years, that’s what Andrew has had to do and he hasn’t been able to play basketball, the game he loves, for Texas, the school he loves. Tonight he did, and it was terrific.”
Jones received an ovation from the Erwin Center crowd in the first half when he stepped on the floor. The cheers from the half-full arena intensified minutes later when Jones made a jumper on the fast break, his first field goal since the Iowa State game on New Year’s Day 2018.
When Texas’ lead dwindled from 19 to 14 in the first two minutes of the second half, Smart brought Jones into the game. He immediately scored Texas’ first two points of the second period followed by the next two .
Ramey scored the next two baskets on layups to bump the lead back to 19 before Jones took over the game. He scored eight straight points, including two three-pointers, to give Texas a 27-point lead, it’s largest of the game.
“It was a great feeling just to get back out there officially and back with my teammates after all the work that we’ve been putting in this summer,” Jones said. “I was just glad to be able to step out on the court with no restrictions.”
Jones said he had no jitters heading into the game. He said he tried to focus on defense and help the team win instead of focusing on individual plays.
Ramey’s first career point/rebound double-double was overshadowed by Jones’ resurgent return, but he had no problem with his front row ticket to the career performance.
“I was happy for him,” Ramey said. “I’ve seen all the hard week that he put in last year when he couldn’t play, then this year battling back from what he went through. It was so special to see. A lot of people don’t score 20 points, and he did it in his first game back. That proves what type of player he is.”
Jones’ second-half performance followed a dominant first-half defensive showing by the Longhorns. Smart mentioned he heard UNC shot over 30 threes in each of the Bears’ preseason scrimmages and made an effort to limit UNC’s perimeter shooting.
In the first half, UNC made 6-of-27 field goal attempts. All six of those makes were considered “layups” by the official scorebook. UNC attempted 10 threes and missed all of them.
After the first 20 minutes, the Bears had just 15 points.
Yaklich called the defense from Smart’s side, a man-to-man approach Texas never abandoned throughout the course of the game. Texas used its length and athleticism to aggressively close out perimeter shooters and force them to drive against a well-positioned defender.
“Our guys, for I would say three quarters of the possessions of the game, did a terrific job of that,” Smart said.
The story of the night may have gotten its start on defense, as Jones took a charge moments before his layup to start Texas’ second-half run. However, it finished with crowd standing on its feet for a player who defeated leukemia to return to play the game he loves, and who did so in a winning fashion.