UCLA came to Austin with more pedigree than any program in college basketball history, but the nation’s No. 9 team didn’t have an answer Thursday for A.J. Abrams. The senior guard matched a career-best 31 points to clinch a 68-64 thriller for No. 8 Texas at a sold-out Erwin Center.
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It was such a torrid night for Abrams that he nearly dropped to the floor in disbelief after missing the front end of a one-and-one with 10 seconds remaining. Yet his follow-up was good, preserving Texas’ second win in as many years against the storied Westwood program. No.8/8 Texas raised its mark to 6-1 on the season after notching its ninth straight home win against a nationally ranked team. The Bruins fell to 4-2.
“A.J. is going to create a lot of offense because of the way he moves without the ball,” Longhorn coach Rick Barnes said, “but there are five guys that were out there at the end and any one of them could have knock down those shots for us.”
Indeed, it was a knock-down, drag-out fight pitting two of college hoops’ top defenses that saw 11 lead changes and eight ties. Texas held the Bruins to 39.4 percent (26-of-66) shooting, including 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) from outside the arc. Texas blocked six shots while forcing 13 turnovers. The Horns connected on 43.6 percent (24-of-55) of their FG attempts, 9-of-20 from three-point range, thanks to Abrams’ hot hand on a chilly night. He finished 9-of-18 from the floor, including 5-of-9 from three-point range. “The game plan was we wanted to hit our post men,” Abrams said, “but (point guard Justin) Mason was doing good job of getting me the ball and I was knocking it in.”
Mason’s contributions are difficult to quantify simply because his five points, six assists and three steals were all so clutch. His baseline steal with 7:09 remaining all but ended a UCLA uprising that saw a 10-point Texas lead turn into a three-point deficit. Damion James was a warrior, notching 13 points and 13 boards, and his jumper in the lane erased a UCLA lead for good with 3:46 remaining. He also came up with two critical rebounds during the last 36 seconds.
Hard-to-please Barnes conceded it was “a very good win” but found plenty that needs fixing. His team was guilty of 13 turnovers and continued to struggle from the charity stripe, hitting just 11-of-19 (57.9 percent).
“We need to drive the ball and get aggressive,” Barnes noted, “but we didn’t do it. Our coaches are scratching our heads. We play hard on defense and, because of that, we stand around waiting for A.J. or somebody to do something.”
UCLA out-rebounded Texas, 39-38, resulting in 14 second-chance points for the visitors.
“To outboard this team is really impressive considering how good Texas is on the glass,” commented UCLA coach Ben Howland. “I think they’re a lot further ahead right now than we are. This is a very, very good Texas team.”
The Bruins jumped to a 5-0 lead, but G Darren Collison was guilty of three early turnovers against Texas’ man defense. Gary Johnson’s jumper gave Texas it’s first lead, 8-7, before Abrams get in on the act. The senior followed consecutive treys with an uncontested layup — credit Mason with the steal — to stake a 15-12 Longhorn advantage.
Texas’ seventh turnover led to a Collison trey and a 22-20 UCLA lead with 7:55 remaining until intermission. Play was stopped 1:04 later after James took a wicked (inadvertent) elbow to the face from Josh Shipp. “That kind of rattled him,” Abrams said. “I don’t think he could see for a while.”
By then, Texas had launched a 10-2 run, starting with a Connor Atchley trey on the dish from Mason. Abrams followed Johnson’s layup by knocking down another three-pointer. At this point, Mason had done everything but score. He capped the run with a pair of reverse layups to build 32-24 Longhorn cushion. Texas took a 38-29 lead into the locker room when Abrams drained three FTs after he was fouled in the act of shooting.
Texas was a sizzling 6-of-10 from three-point range during the first period but would miss 7-of-10 three-balls during the final 20 minutes of play.
Collison was whistled for two quick fouls to open the final frame but his three-pointer trimmed the Texas lead to 41-36. His shot was bracketed by a Dexter Pittman jam who would then muscle his way to the bucket for an easy layup. The Bruins called for time after an Abrams’ three-ball made it a 46-36 contest at the 16:50 mark.
UCLA responded with an 11-0 run as Texas went 4:06 without a FG.
“I wouldn’t say I thought the game was slipping away,” Mason said, “but we needed to regroup and get back on track. They put on a great run. I give a lot of credit to those guys. They started to pound it on the offensive board.”
Collison’s runner regained the Bruin lead, 47-46, before Abrams broke the Texas scoring drought with a bankshot. His free throws made it 50-49 Texas with 12 minutes left as the fouls began to mount for the visitors. UCLA was whistled for its seventh personal with 9:38 remaining, but Clint Chapman missed his fourth straight foul shot to leave the score knotted at 52.
The Bruins threatened to build on a three-point lead when Mason’s baseline steal set up James’ trey from the left wing with just under seven minutes left. Now, James was demanding the rock. His jumper in the lane forced another tie, this time at 62, with 3:43 left on the game clock “They came out the second half and controlled the game,” Barnes said. “During the last three or four minutes, we got a grip on it.”
Both squads were battling for loose balls like it was the last three minutes of March Madness. Abrams’ trey spotted Texas a precarious 65-62 lead, but Alfred Aboya’s layup quickly trimmed the deficit. A pair of Abrams’ foul shots pushed the margin back to three with 1:49 on the game clock.
Now, the 16,755 in attendance at the normally placid Erwin Center was approaching meltdown.
The Bruins would have four offensive possessions and Texas turned them every time, putting on a defensive clinic in a contest that bordered on basketbrawl. Officials called a tie-up between James and Shipp with 33 seconds left, but Collison misfired on straight-on trey. The Bruins had one more possession after the ball went out of bounds off Johnson. An Abrams foul sent Shipp to charity stripe for a one-and-one with 15.7 seconds left. He missed.
James collected his 13th, and most important, rebound of the night before feeding the ball to Abrams. On a night when he couldn’t miss, a one-of-two showing during his final trip to the foul line was all Abrams needed to seal Texas’ biggest win of the young season. Texas’ next home game is against Texas State on December 13, but before then the Horns will travel to New York City for a game against Villanova in the Jimmy V Classic. Tuesday’s game will tipoff at 8:00 p.m. CST.