Butterflies can throw just about anyone off their game on opening night.
The Longhorns had five newcomers make their burnt-orange debuts on Tuesday at the Erwin Center. That had to be the main reason why Texas sputtered early against Eastern Illinois before ultimately cruising to a 71-59 win.
“I thought we played about 15 minutes of really impressive basketball for November 6th,” UT coach Shaka Smart said. “Obviously the goal is to extend that to 40.”
A sixth Longhorn, a junior with 43 career games under his belt, looked a tad nervous when he checked in for the first time. He lost his shoe at one point but still corralled a loose ball. While running back down the floor wearing both sneakers, he got razzed by teammates.
When Andrew Jones stepped through a double team, drove to the rim and drew a foul, things finally seemed normal. He made the second of two free throws, and must’ve felt like a true baller again.
Go ahead, update his totals. Jones now has 513 points in 44 career games at Texas and counting.
The Texas junior who battled leukemia throughout 2018 was welcomed back to a thunderous standing ovation by the crowd of 7,522. He played nine minutes as the Horns started the season 1-0.
“It felt good just having his presence,” guard Matt Coleman III said. “You could see the fans, they really care about him.”
Asked how Jones has handled all of this, Coleman said, “He handled it very humbly. Andrew wants to be treated like he’s one of us.”
Smart has been cautious about Jones’ every step back to full-time basketball. The situation to get Jones into the game couldn’t have been any better against the outmanned Panthers (0-1).
The Horns actually struggled through the first half and trailed 25-23. Elijah Mitrou-Long, a transfer guard who sat out last season per NCAA rules, got himself going with an 18-footer and then a 3-pointer.
Freshman Jaxson Hayes, a virtual sky walker, leaped for an easy block that started UT’s first real run-out of the night. Mitrou-Long slipped the ball to Coleman, who was driving to the rack for the bucket and foul. That play ignited a 15-3 run to close the first half and give Texas a 10-point lead.
“I felt pretty good,” Hayes said, “once I actually started playing and got all the servers and stuff.”
Texas then opened the second half with a strong start. Coleman hit a 3-pointer, Jericho Sims slammed home a dunk and Jase Febres sank a long ball from the left corner. Texas ran up a 20-point lead, mostly because EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said, “I think they got real serious about playing.”
Mitrou-Long even flirted with a triple-double. He finished with nine points, six rebounds and six assists. Reggie Freeman is still the only player in UT history with a triple-double, something that happened back in February 1996 against TCU.
“We had 15 minute stretch where we showed great glimpses, but I still feel we need to improve on a lot of things,” Mitrou-Long said.
Leading 56-36, Smart had his mind made up. He told Jones to check into the game at the next media timeout. The crowd didn’t really notice him at first when the Horns broke their team huddle.
As players dispersed and coaches left the floor, there was the 6-foot-4 guard standing at the elbow wearing his customary jersey No. 1.
The crowd realized Jones was on the floor, spontaneously stood up and applauded. They stayed on the feet, waiting to see what happened next. Jones dove for a loose ball on the first defensive possession and helped force a jump ball.
“First of all, when he checked in, I guess it just hit me and probably hit a lot of people in the building that this guy was laying in the hospital bed a matter of months ago,” Smart said. “Now, he’s out there in a Texas uniform.”
Smart said Jones is still getting back to full strength. “Nobody knows for sure exactly how that’s going to go,” he said. He’ll actually miss a few weeks in December for pre-scheduled treatments at the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center. For now, Jones probably won’t be in the regular rotation.
The Longhorns’ guard lineup will consist primarily of those who played in the first half. That means fans should expect Coleman, Mitrou-Long, Febres and freshman Courtney Ramey in the backcourt.
Coleman had a team-high 13 points and seven assists against the Panthers. He should get more offensive help in Friday’s game against Arkansas when Kerwin Roach II returns. The senior was suspended for the season opener for an undisclosed violation of team rules that happened last spring.
Texas hit eight of 25 3-point shots in the opener for a middling 32 percent. Playing more full-court press, the defense forced 19 turnovers. Hayes added 12 points, but in all honesty, it wasn’t Sims or Dylan Osetkowski’s best night.
It was one game, the first game. But a big one for “AJ1” and the rest of the Horns.
“Today set the bar,” Coleman said. “Now, we’ve just got to build on it.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.