Longhorns get signature win by holding off UCLA

AUSTIN, Texas -- Coach Rick Barnes walked into the Texas locker room and didn't mince words.

The Longhorns needed a signature win at this point in the season. Beating UCLA on Thursday night would suffice. And that's just what Texas did with a 68-64 nail-biter at the Erwin Center.

"We took a tough loss [to Notre Dame],'' Texas senior point guard A.J. Abrams said. "This is the kind of win that can play out later in the season, the kind of win you need throughout, not just at the end.''

Coaches sometimes like to say they don't talk big picture. But they are savvy enough to know about the importance of home games like Thursday's against a Pac-10 title contender. Games like that don't come along too often in nonconference play.

Texas plays more big-time, meaningful nonconference games in one season than most teams play in a two- to three-season cycle. Still, this was UCLA, at home, and a game that the Horns couldn't just let slip away.

Barnes' club played in the Maui Invitational, losing to Big East contender Notre Dame by one in the semifinals, to go along with wins against potential NIT teams Saint Joseph's and Oregon.

Villanova is up next for Texas on Tuesday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) at the Jimmy V Classic in New York. A date with Michigan State in Houston looms on Dec. 20, and a tough road game at perennial NCAA team Wisconsin comes three days later in Madison. As you can see, none of those are at the Erwin Center.

The Longhorns needed to beat UCLA for their own self-confidence, and to prove to everyone else that they have Final Four capability. The Horns won, barely -- but in an NCAA-like atmosphere, it was enough to formally announce their candidacy for an appearance in Detroit come April.

UCLA coach Ben Howland said after the game that Texas has a chance to get to the Final Four with a team that lost only one key player from last season -- albeit a lottery pick, point guard D.J. Augustin. But Howland reminded everyone that the Longhorns won 31 games last season before losing to Memphis in the Elite Eight.

"You can imagine, if you lose this game, lose to Villanova and Wisconsin, and it goes down the line and the questions start to mount, can this team win a big game?'' Barnes said. "Winning this game, against a team that some people picked to be in the Final Four, helps. In another month, [UCLA] will get better and better.''

Barnes doesn't hesitate to educate his players on the importance of these games. He said getting up for the early-morning consolation victory over Oregon, after a tough loss to Notre Dame the previous day in Maui, was hard but necessary.

"They won't realize until March how big that was,'' Barnes said. He then segued into the importance of Thursday night for the Big 12. Oklahoma held off USC in the undercard matchup of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series game in Norman, beating the Trojans 73-72 on the final possession.

"What this challenge [with the Pac-10] has done is important,'' Barnes said. "We want to keep our teams ranked as the year goes on.''

Texas has the pieces in place to compete for the Big 12 title and a run toward Detroit. The Longhorns have a big-time scorer in Abrams (31 points vs. UCLA), a tough matchup in wing Damion James (a double-double with 13 points and 13 boards), a defender and capable guard in Justin Mason (six assists, one turnover and three steals), a shooting big man in Connor Atchley (both his field goals in five attempts were 3s) and a rotation of rebounders in Dexter Pittman, Gary Johnson and Clint Chapman.

With such a loaded nonconference slate and the disadvantage of this season's Big 12 South scheduling format -- Texas plays Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas A&M twice, while Kansas plays each of those conference title contenders only once -- the Longhorns may have the toughest overall schedule come March. That's what Barnes is predicting when Selection Sunday arrives. By then, Texas could be in contention for one of the No. 1 seeds, too.

Holding off UCLA at home, even in early December, is a win the Longhorns needed to prove they are a serious threat to make a run to Detroit.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.