For much of the first half on Tuesday night, Texas looked unprepared for a test against Eastern Illinois. Turnovers, missed defensive assignments and stagnant offensive play defined the Longhorns in an effort that had them tied at 22 a piece through the first 15 minutes of the season.
Shaka Smart knew his team desperately needed an injection of energy. Elijah Mitrou-Long provided that when he checked back in the game with 4:15 left in the first half.
It started with a nifty move at the free throw line where he proceeded to drill a jump shot over a defender. Then, he knocked down a three point shot in the right corner. Just a few seconds later came a defensive rebound and a fast break where Mitrou-Long found guard Matt Coleman on a brilliant no-look pass for a lay up.
By the time the flurry of action had concluded, the junior guard sparked an 8-2 run, giving the Longhorns a 30-25 lead and switching the momentum of the game.
“He was big,” Smart said. “I told him, ‘You have to get yourself going through defense,’ and he did a nice job on a couple possessions and got some momentum going for himself. And then, all of a sudden, he’s scored a few points and at the half he has a decent state line.”
Tuesday night was Mitrou-Long’s first time suiting up in the burnt orange and white at the Frank Erwin Center. The former Mount St. Mary’s University standout sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules after deciding he wanted to play for Smart’s program in May 2017.
And while the beginning of his night included problems with turnovers and missed open shots, he quickly became a player who changed Texas’ fortunes in a matter of minutes. He finished the game with a team-high six rebounds, nine points, six assists and three steals in 24 minutes of action.
“I’ve been sitting out for a while, I just need to get back into things,” Mitrou-Long said. “As soon as I see one go in, I got into my little rhythm and (the other guards) helped me get into that.”
For a team that consistently faced difficulties finding guard play after Andrew Jones left the team in January last season, Mitrou-Long’s emergence on the floor would be critical for the Longhorns on both ends of the floor. He’ll have to continue to progress as the season presses on, but his teammates can see his effectiveness on display in the first game.
“It’s just having another guard, just being able to play off each other,” Coleman said. “Coach talked in the offseason about being able to play with two point guards or two lead guards and making things easier for each other.”
The Longhorns’ style of play involving two guards will seemingly persist throughout the season. And if he can continue to put together performances like he did toward the end of the first half, Mitrou-Long will likely be an essential piece.
“It’s nice having Courtney (Ramey) who’s a true point guard that can play there, and Eli who can facilitate and play that position as well,” Smart said. “You want to have multiple guys that think of themselves as point guards.”