"It might, really and truly, be the best team win we've had all year," said Texas head coach Rick Barnes after the win over St. Mary's.
Perhaps it shouldn't be that surprising. Saturday was the first time the entire season that the team was finally whole and the first time Barnes got to put in the starting lineup he intended to have heading into this season.
Junior guard A.J. Abrams missed the last game with a foot injury, sitting out freshman forward Gary Johnson's debut as a Texas Longhorn in Wednesday's win over TCU. Both were in the starting lineup against St. Mary's. Abrams chipped in 13 points, five rebounds and two assists and didn't appear slowed by his recovery, playing 36 minutes.
Johnson, however, had his coming out party. The freshman forward, playing in only his second game at Texas, scored 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting and grabbed six boards after only putting up five and five his first time out.
"It felt good to get into the flow of things again and not be so nervous," said Johnson. "First game, I was just happy to be out there. I was able to put the first game behind me...Everything started to come back, so I felt good out there tonight."
A little film study may have gone a long way for Johnson.
On Thursday, Barnes gave the team a very rare day off from practice, instead surprising his player with a trip to the Alamo Drafthouse for a movie. But after film, Barnes and Johnson went back to the gym for another movie, this one a private screening.
"On the day off, he and I came back and watched the (TCU) game," said Barnes. "We watched all of his possessions and he was making the same mistakes the rest were making at the start of the season."
For Texas, Saturday's show had a happy ending, but in the beginning, this one looked bleak for the heroes. Texas fell behind 11-2 to the surprising St. Mary's Gaels (as in, the Gaelic people of Ireland) and their freshman star, point guard Patrick Mills.
Mills, who hails from Australia, came into the contest leading the Gaels in points, assists and steals and put his mark on the game immediately, nailing a three to start his team's run. Although Texas managed to hang with the visitors, St. Mary's kept Texas at arm's length. Where the Gaels controlled the game the most in the early goings, surprisingly, was on the boards.
The smaller, more outside-shooting focused Gales out-rebounded Texas 25-13 in the first half. In fact, for most of the first half, Texas had more fouls than rebounds, failing to equal the number until three minutes to go in the opening frame, holding nine apiece.
"Rebounding, that's the first thing we talked about at halftime," said Barnes. "We had our hands on some of those rebounds and we couldn't get them. I thought their guards did a good job of getting some of those loose rebounds."
The situation looked desperate, but the game turned around on a three from the Burnt Orange knight in shining armor for Texas: D.J. Augustin.
Texas inched closer, but the game completely changed pace when Augustin nailed a three-pointer to tie it up at 29 with 6:05 to go in the first half. Texas went on to outscore the Gaels 21-9 to close out the period, leading 42-36 at half.
"He's one of the better point guards I've played in my career," said Mills. "Just in the little things he was better. I'll look back on this game and learn from the things he did."
And he did a lot. The dominating Texas run continued right on through in the second half, as if it was an entirely different basketball game from the one that start at 5:00 on Saturday. The effort was led by Augustin, who finished with 30 points, four assists, two rebounds and steal. It was the second 30-point game of Augustin's UT career (31 vs. Iowa State, Feb. 10, 2007), but the sophomore point guard, who was called out by Barnes after the TCU game for his poor play, said he came into this game with a defensive mindset, especially given his opponent.
"Tonight I just tried to go out there and play defense," said Augustin. Their best player (Mills) is a great player and that was our key tonight, to slow him down and take him away from the game."
Mills was quite definitively contained. The freshman point guard scored only 12 points, but more importantly, had five turnovers and only a single assist.
Texas was also aided by a much more physical effort from the post. Barnes said he was pleased with his forwards, especially the players coming off the bench, and that he expected a strong performance because of the physicality he saw in practice.
"I left the gym yesterday saying that is the team I want, because we were jacking each other up," said Barnes.
Texas' next opponent is Missouri, which opens conference play for the Horns. Barnes said his team is well prepared for the rigors of the Big 12.
"We played a schedule that got us prepared for it. We're ready," said Barnes.
Texas travels to take on the Tigers in Colombia, Missouri for 12:45 tip-off on Saturday.