AUSTIN, Texas (AP)—After logging thousands of air miles to and from Hawaii and three games in a holiday tournament, the No. 6 Texas Longhorns could be excused if they were in need of a Sunday afternoon nap.
Texas looked like it would have a snoozer Sunday against Rice before the Owls made a game of it in the first half. The Longhorns finally woke up in the second to pull away for a workmanlike 77-56 win. Justin Mason scored 14 points to lead five Texas players in double figures.
Texas played in the Maui Invitational last week and didn’t get home to Austin until about midday Friday. Within 48 hours, the Longhorns were playing their fourth game in seven days.
“It was tough coming back,” Mason said. “But we can’t use that as an excuse.”
Texas (5-1) sure looked jet-lagged. Gary Johnson and Damion James both finished with 12 points for the Longhorns, but guard A.J. Abrams, their leading scorer this season and one of the best 3-point shooters in the country, had 10 points after making just one from long range. He was held scoreless in the first half.
“It’s the first time I can remember in a long time he just looked beat,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said.
Abrams took only one shot in the first half—he was fouled so it didn’t even show up on the stat sheet—and spent much of it on the bench after he picked up two of his own.
Rice (2-4) was able to take advantage of the Texas lull for a little while. Lucas Kuipers, who led the Owls with 19 points, made three 3-pointers in the half. Rice led 19-17 before Texas reserve guards Dogus Balbay and Varez Ward sparked an 8-0 Texas run.
Balbay finished a fast break with an arcing layup over a defender, then jumped in the paint for a tip-in. He then had a steal that led to a basket by Johnson and a 25-19 lead for Texas.
“My job is just getting the ball and try to run fast breaks, pass the ball,” said Balbay, a sophomore from Turkey. “When I get the ball, I just try to be aggressive.”
Balbay ended the half with an assist to Mason, who made a 3-pointer with 6 seconds left to give the Longhorns a 37-30 lead at halftime.
“We came out in the first half and we were really hungry. We really wanted it,” Kuipers said. “In the second half, we got a little satisfied.”
The Longhorns seemed to use the break to finally wake up.
Abrams scored two quick baskets to open the second half and Texas built the lead to 48-31 as the Owls misfired on several 3-pointers. Abrams finally took— and made—a 3-pointer, with 10:31 to play that made it 57-41. The Owls were never able to trim the deficit under 13 points and the Longhorns coasted the rest of the way.
“When you can hold a great player like Abrams to zero in the first half, you have a chance to win the game,” Rice coach Ben Braun said. “In the second, he hit some big shots to turn the game around.”
Texas is 86-9 against opponents from the Lone Star State in 11 seasons under Barnes.