10:53 PM ET
AUSTIN, Texas — Andrew Jones didn’t just return to basketball competition Tuesday after a long absence. He took a star turn.
Jones, who missed most of the past two seasons while receiving treatment for leukemia, rejoined the Texas rotation and scored a career-best 20 points in 29 minutes as the Longhorns defeated Northern Colorado 69-45 in the opener for both teams.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Jones, a redshirt sophomore guard, said. “It was a great feeling to be back out there. I didn’t have any jitters. I wasn’t nervous.”
Jones scored his previous career-best 19 in a win at VCU on Dec. 5, 2017, and he was leading the team that season with 15.3 points per game while hitting 43.2 percent on 3-pointers before missing four games with a wrist injury. He was diagnosed with leukemia a month later and missed the rest of the season. Jones was still undergoing treatment last season when he made brief appearances in two games.
This was much different. Jones entered the game at the 13:50 mark of the first half, and he did not appear hesitant. One time he stepped in front of a Northern Colorado player to induce a charging foul, falling to the court in the process. Then Jones drove through traffic in the lane for a basket.
“Andrew’s a great player,” said Texas guard Courtney Ramey, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds. “Him being out for so long, people kind of forgot about him. So he’s gonna wake them up.”
Those first-half moves were only an appetizer. In the second half Jones converted 7 of 10 shots, including 4 of 5 3-pointers.
“I’m happy for Andrew,” coach Shaka Smart said. “I’m happy for his family. Sometimes in life, when you are dealt a tough hand, it’s really about how you respond. He was the best offensive player on the floor. He played with great energy. He played with an aggressive, confident and loose mindset.”
Texas: The Longhorns have been trying for years to regain the success they maintained under coach Rick Barnes from 2002 to 2008, when they went to the NCAA tournament round of 16 or beyond five times in seven seasons, including the 2003 Final Four. The Longhorns have missed the NCAA tournament in two of four seasons since Smart replaced Barnes in 2015, and they have yet to win a game in the tournament. Big 12 coaches picked the Longhorns to finish fourth.
Northern Colorado: Big Sky conference coaches picked the Bears to finish fifth in the 11-team conference. They finished second last season and return four starters, but they lost Jordan Davis, their leading scorer with 23.5 points per game as a senior. They seemed to miss Davis. The Bears went 8:59 in the first half without a field goal, making only a pair of free throws during that stretch. Sam Masten led Northern Colorado with 11 points. Texas limited Northern Colorado to 27% shooting.
Northern Colorado hit just 2 of 21 3-pointers against a defense coached by new Texas associate head coach Luke Yaklich. “We knew we were gonna have a challenge trying to get 3s off,” Northern Colorado coach Jeff Linder said. “I wasn’t expecting to shoot like that, but they had something to do with that.”
Sophomore Gerald Liddell, who is competing for a starting job at forward, missed the game because he is in concussion protocol after taking a knee to his head in practice eight days ago. Liddell, a top-50 national recruit, appeared in only 13 games last season, never playing more than seven minutes in the first nine. But he logged double-digit minutes in the final four games en route to the NIT championship.
“He’s our most improved player,” Smart said. “I would say for the first week or two of practice he was our best player.”
Way too soon for that. The Longhorns did not receive a single vote in the AP preseason top 25.
Texas is at Purdue on Saturday. Texas defeated Purdue 72-68 last season in Austin, overcoming 40 points by Carsen Edwards, now with the Boston Celtics. Matt Coleman scored 22 for Texas.
Northern Colorado is at home against Incarnate Word on Saturday. Northern Colorado beat Incarnate Word 90-64 last season in San Antonio behind 20 points apiece from Davis and Jonah Radebaugh.