GREENSBORO, N.C.—All season long the Texas Longhorns have been searching for an identity on offense.
Tonight they found one: A.J. Abrams.
The Texas sharpshooter sunk eight threes and totaled 26 points as he lifted Texas to a 76-62 victory over the 10th-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the fifth straight opening-round victory for the Longhorns.
Texas effectively worked the inside-outside game, stretching the floor with Abrams' hot perimeter shooting and big man Dexter Pittman's overwhelming presence in the paint. The junior center finished with yet another double-double, grabbing 10 rebounds to go along with his 17 points.
Freshman guard Varez Ward produced rather modest numbers but played a key role in pushing the tempo in favor of the Longhorns. Damion James added 18 points and nine rebounds.
The Golden Gophers were crushed on the boards by their burnt orange-clad opponents, 40-29, and were outclassed from behind the arc as the Longhorns hit 11 of 20 from three-point range to Minnesota's four of 13.
However, Minnesota made things interesting early on, going up 13-3 after capitalizing on some quick Texas turnovers. The Gophers went into the break down by only five.
Minnesota was able to keep up with the Longhorns well into the second half due to a big game from Lawrence Westbrook. The junior guard finished eight of 14, for 19 points.
Minnesota was close on Texas' heals until Abrams knocked down three straight three-pointers in a minute-and-a-half, stretching the Longhorns' lead to 59-44 with about 10 minutes left to play. The Longhorns have struggled to get Abrams good looks as of late, but that issue was resolved against a beleaguered Minnesota defense.
Tubby Smith's club started their season off with a bang, winning 15 of their first 16 games. However, the Golden Gophers faded down the stretch, losing 10 of their last 16.
The 2008-2009 season has been somewhat of an enigma as far as Texas goes. The Longhorns scored some quality wins, beating UCLA and Oklahoma at home, Villanova on a neutral court, and Wisconsin on the road. Since early January, however, the Longhorns have stumbled to a 10-8 record, including a loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament.
With the win over Minnesota, the Longhorns advance to a second-round date with the No. 2-seeded Duke Blue Devils. Mike Krzyzewski's team is fresh off a win in the ACC title game over Florida State.
Head coach Rick Barnes has led his Longhorns to 11 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, advancing to the Sweet 16 five out of the last seven years. Texas advanced twice to the Elite Eight—in 2005 and 2008—and once to the Final Four, in 2003.
It will likely take Barnes' best coaching job yet to get his Longhorns back to the Elite Eight and beyond in this year's tournament.