Baylor started an important stretch in the development of its young basketball team on Wednesday night with an added dimension -- a healthy Isaiah Austin.
Austin, just now fully healthy after spraining his ankle in the season opener, had his explosive first step back against Lamar, putting up career highs Wednesday night with 23 points and 17 rebounds in the eighth game of his freshman season.
On a night when Baylor struggled to pull away from Lamar -- inconsistent defense again posing a dilemma -- Austin had the second double-double of his career. He had 13 and 13 against St John's back in mid-November.
This was a more dominant performance. Austin had 11 points in the first half and 12 in the second. He played 36 minutes. He had two assists and only one turnover. He made 11 of his 19 shots. Not exactly freshman-type numbers.
"I liked his aggressiveness," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "I liked the way we fed him the ball. We need more of that."
Austin sprained his ankle in the Nov. 9 season opener against Lehigh, missed the next game against Jackson State and then played through the injury for the next six games, a stretch in which Baylor posted a 3-3 record.
With sharp-shooting guard Brady Heslip having his appendix removed on Nov. 20 and point guard Pierre Jackson dealing with a thigh bruise, the hope is the Bears have already gone through the worst of this season's ailments (knock on wood).
For Austin, who has had four double-digit scoring nights and two sub-par shooting games since sitting out against Jackson State, he hasn't had that explosive first step. And his movement laterally. Eight days off because of final exams in school appeared to help Austin fully recover from his sprained ankle.
He was active early and active on the boards. He had an offensive rebound and a dunk. He hit a 3-pointer. And made a mid-range jumper.
Austin had two offensive rebounds and layup during a crucial stretch during the second half as Baylor extended a 56-51 lead to 69-57. Gary Franklin came off the bench to hit two key 3-pointers during the 13-6 run, but it was Austin that fueled it.
"I just want to run as hard I can to the front of the rim and get my hands on rebounds," Austin said.
Austin said Drew has been trying to get him to take advantage of 7-foot-1 height advantage and crash the boards more. Austin topped his season high boards for rebounds by four and his third game with double figures in boards.
"Coach Drew has been emphasizing that a lot in practice," Austin said. "He wants me to get 10 or more boards a game. I just want to be more active on the boards."
Austin finished the game by making two sweet moves in the low post off of passes from A.J. Walton to give Baylor a 77-63 lead. It was the Bears' best stretch of basketball all night as they made five straight shots and also tightened things up at the defensive end.
With two more home games coming up next week against USC-Upstate and BYU and a post-Christmas road trip to Gonzaga before the conference opener against Texas on Jan. 5 -- and lots of practice time in between -- this is an crucial time for Baylor to get better.
To mature. To get more consistent. Austin got the ball rolling Wednesday night.
"It was good how we executed in the last five minutes of the game," Drew said.
Yes it was.