The Longhorn hoopsters tackled their season home opener Tuesday at Wilson Dome in an ugly duckling game that started with a flat-footed quack but turned into a thing of beauty.
With a roster crowded with refurbished football players still winded from their state championship season, the Longhorns faced a tough, physical Florence team.
The Florence players ran up the score and the foul tally in the first quarter, amassing a 20 to 15 lead. But the Longhorns took a breath, shifted from charging to passing, and fought back to a 26-25 edge at the half.
After some no doubt gently phrased reminders about passing during halftime, the Longhorns came out to crush a faltering opponent — outscoring Florence 31 to 8 in the final two periods.
When the smoke cleared, the Longhorns had chalked up an impressive 57-33 win in their first game of the season at home.
Coach Kenny Hayes noted, “At halftime, we talked about patience in the offense and making the extra pass.”
The Longhorns clicked at both ends of the floor in the second half, as the offense set the pace and the defense dug in. The Longhorns relied on a tenacious man-on-man defense and shot blocks from Matt Wilson, Ever Figueroa and Jeff Day. The Longhorns also proved effective on defensive rebounds, with Matt Wilson setting the pace with six, followed by three or four from four other players.
Hayes played 11 players, wearing down the smaller Florence team with the depth of the bench in a bruising, one-on-one chase up and down the court.
Florence played hard and racked up twice as many fouls, but the Florence three-pointers that fell so easily in the first quarter evaporated as the Longhorns asserted control.
“Our offense benefited from the improved defensive play,” said Hayes, “and better patience on the offensive end.
“Florence also got tired because we were deeper than them, which means we had better players coming off the bench than they do.”
The Longhorn roster included seven members of the state championship football team — four of them in the starting lineup. The Longhorns have only two basketball starters back from last year, but six players who had substantial playing time last season.
“It is nice to have so much experience from our state runner-up team on this year’s roster,” said Hayes. “Some of the kids on the team have been to the state championship twice in the last two years. I am very optimistic if the kids can learn to play together as a team. We should make a deep run in the playoffs if we can work together.”
That cohesion deserted the Longhorns in the first period, as the still-rusty players went charging down the lane in a drive for the basket — instead of passing until the offense could set up the score. The charges ended up drawing a lot of Florence fouls, but didn’t put many Longhorn points on the board in the first period.
“I think that the inability to finish when we get in the lane has to do with rustiness from not practicing basketball for a month. I don’t think football has much to do with it,” Hayes said.
“I think they may be a little emotionally wore out, and need time to get into basketball shape slowly so they have a chance to mentally recover, so they aren’t worn out physically and mentally,” he added.
But the players and coaches made adjustments that stopped the unraveling in the second period and then paid big dividends in the second half — as the rotation from the bench wore down the shallower roster of Florence.
The Longhorns proved most impressive at the defensive end of the court in the second half, effectively shutting down a team that pretty much scored at will in the first period. The Longhorns’ offense recovered, but continued to force shots enough to reduce efficiency in the second half.
Cody York and Matt Wilson turned in standout performances, with 13 points each.
Wilson had the hot hand, shooting 86 percent from the field and pulling down seven rebounds.
York shot 50 percent, with seven rebounds and three assists.
Shane Keith should get the “Steve Nash generous player of the night award, with a team-high six assists, three steals and four rebounds to go with his five points.
Tyler Savage sank 67 percent of his shots and scored 10 points, the third highest Longhorn tally for the evening. He also logged two assists and seven rebounds.
Dakota Marshall set the pace for rebounds with eight, but had trouble getting the range with his 4 points and 33 percent shooting.