A.J. Abrams’ 3-point shooting was a key reason Texas got within a game of the Final Four last season. Now the Longhorns are moving on again thanks to the senior’s latest long-range shooting flurry in the NCAA tournament.
Abrams hit eight 3-pointers and scored 26 points to help Texas beat Minnesota 76-62 in the first round of the East Regional on Thursday, helping the Longhorns win their NCAA opener for the fourth straight season.
Damion James added 18 points and nine rebounds for the seventh-seeded Longhorns (23-11), who hit 11 of 20 3s overall to put their recent struggles behind them. Texas had lost seven of its past 14 games dating to late January, a frustrating finish to a regular season that began with the Longhorns in the top 10.
Now they’re preparing for a matchup against the Duke-Binghamton winner in Saturday’s second round.
It all began with Abrams, who had a run of six straight 3s to blow open a close game and give Texas a comfortable lead midway through the second half against the Golden Gophers (22-11). He finished one shy of a career high for made 3s and looked so relaxed that he heard questions afterward about how he manages to stay so calm in the postseason.
“I guess I’m just kind of a laid-back person,” he said. “I don’t let the excitement just overwhelm me. I guess that’s what it is. But I know these games are high stakes.”
Abrams picked up where he left off in last year’s four-game NCAA run, where he averaged 20 points and shot 50 percent from behind the arc. That included a pair of 6-for-10 performances from 3-point range in the first two wins.
“I’m not sure we’ve had a guy that’s been defended the way he has all year,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “He’s gotten the attention of every opponent. I know they game plan for him. When he starts getting separation and gets his feet and his balance, yeah, he’s one of those guys where you’re surprised when he misses.”
Lawrence Westbrook scored 19 points for the 10th-seeded Gophers, who were making their first tournament appearance since 2005. It was also Minnesota’s first NCAA bid under Tubby Smith, who left Kentucky two seasons ago to rebuild the struggling Big Ten program.
Minnesota got off to its best start in more than 30 years at 16-1, but closed the season by losing 10 of 16.
The Gophers got the start they wanted Thursday, jumping to a 10-point lead in the opening 3 1/2 minutes, but the Longhorns hung around until Abrams found his range and turned the game into an impressive shooting display.
“Once they got the big lead, I think some guys lost composure a little bit,” said Damian Johnson, who had 13 points for Minnesota. “When a guy like Abrams catches fire, that can be trouble for anyone and I think that’s what gave them momentum.”
He missed three of his first four deep tries, but started finding his range late in the first half before getting free on a screen from Connor Atchley and making a 3 just before the horn for a 39-35 halftime lead.
That turned out to be the first of six in a row, including a run of 3s on four straight possessions. After making the first two, Abrams fooled Blake Hoffarber into going airborne with a pump fake, then took a dribble to his right and coolly made the 3 from right in front of the Texas bench. Then, after a pair of missed shots by Minnesota, Abrams took a pass and launched another one over Devron Bostick that swished through the net.
That capped Abrams’ personal 12-0 spurt and pushed Texas’ lead to 59-44 with 10:57 to play. Minnesota didn’t get closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
“It’s like I’ve been saying: experience goes a long way,” Abrams said. “You can’t teach that. We just executed on the offensive end. We created some offense with our defense, and if we continue to do that, we’ll be tough to beat.”
Abrams’ eight 3s were the most allowed by Minnesota all season, and followed a frustrating inability to defend the perimeter during the Gophers’ late-season slide. It marked the ninth time in the last 16 games that Minnesota had allowed an opposing team to shoot at least 40 percent from behind the arc.
The Gophers had allowed that just three times during their 16-1 start.
“We didn’t get our hands up,” Smith said. “With a good shooter, you’ve got to get your hands up. You can’t have your hands down. You’ve got to make him put it on the floor. We never made him.”
Dexter Pittman added 17 points and 11 rebounds for Texas, which shot 47 percent and took a 41-30 rebounding edge that led to 15 second-chance points.
Minnesota shot 41 percent from the field.