It’s been a long season for everyone, but few teams have experience a roller-coaster ride like the Texas Longhorns.
Entering the NCAA tournament, coach Karen Aston hopes they are revived and hungry after a tired-looking last two weeks. But if yesterday’s energized, first-round win is any indication, Texas may be ready for a deep run.
They endured a daunting early-season schedule, facing several top-ranked teams – and they paid for it. Their opening day saw a double-digit loss at Stanford, then ranked No. 10. Six days later they lost again at No. 9 Mississippi State. Texas hosted, and lost to, South Carolina in their fifth game, and traveled to UConn immediately for a dramatic drubbing by the Huskies (72-54) three days later. They limped home to Austin with a 2-4 record, feeling tired and battered. The pre-season No. 8 team in the nation slipped to No. 17.
But there was a funny thing about all that losing: the team learned to appreciate what winning looked like, and they emerged from their losing streak with a toughness that gratified their coach. In the next two months, Texas reeled off 19 straight wins.
In a long conversation last week, Aston talked openly about the transition of her team from wide-eyed observers to focused winners, and then to a tired team that couldn’t prevail in close games. She also admitted that the process is far from complete.
“I think [the early schedule] was the best way to make some of them grow up,” Aston said. “It wasn’t all planned. I don’t want to take credit for putting that schedule together. . . . We put a pretty good schedule together, then the SEC-Big 12 game emerged, and put us against South Carolina. And that was actually two days prior to going to UConn.”
“Some individual players gained a little bit of confidence from the fact that we knew we were in the (UConn) game for a large part of it without one of our best players (Guard Ariel Atkins, injured at UConn). (We were) a young, inexperienced team that didn’t know the nuances of being on somebody’s home court, and how to compete in road games.”
With a week’s rest and playing at home, the Longhorns defeated Tennessee, 72-67, on Dec. 11. They hosted five games in a row – three against lesser competition – winning them all. The team left for winter break with a winning record.
“Coming back from Christmas break they started saying ‘Let’s see how many good practice days we can string along,’ Aston said. “There weren’t many practice days when I had to raise my voice. . . . Some of the young ones grew up a little bit. Our defense started to play a little better, and their understanding of the day-to-day work that you have to do at this level was a little better.”
The Longhorns won at home by twenty in the conference opener against Texas Tech, then held on for their first road win, at Iowa State. They were on a roll until mid-February with a string of 19 victories, finishing with another late-scheduled non-conference game against No. 5/4 Florida State. Their win over the Seminoles elevated them to No. 6 in the AP poll. During the streak they beat five ranked teams, highlighted by a convincing road win against No. 2 Baylor.
Then the team hit a wall, losing four of their final six games, including a second round Big 12 tournament loss to eventual champion West Virginia. They lost those games by a total of 11 points, signaling an inability to close out games.
“All those losses had different scenarios. . . . A couple of those losses potentially came from being flat from the battle of the year, and emotionally and physically spent and not knowing how to fight through that,” Aston said. “I mean, a championship team fights through that. I’m not making excuses for them, because if we’d done that we’d be sitting in a different position right now. But his young team doesn’t have the capacity to focus like that when they are fatigued or when they maybe have this idea that they’re in a better place than they’re really in.”
“I don’t mean that negatively. We really don’t have a person in the locker room that is really hard-nosed enough to keep that in check. I think that kind of bit us in a few of those games when we waited too late to play hard. . . . We need to learn from these experiences and get better. And it’s all the responsibility of the coach to figure that out.”
Atkins and fellow junior guard Brooke McCarty are the leaders most likely to make the jump to the locker room leader that Aston is seeking, but the coach is not convinced that 10 days rest going into the Tournament will bring that change about. She remains hopeful, however, that one of those guards will add the necessary vocal leadership to take this talented team far into the postseason.
Atkins and McCarty stand alone in their consistent effort both in games, and in practice. They lead the team in scoring (13 and 14 points per game, respectively). McCarty runs the point, with a solid 2:1 assist/turnover ratio. Atkins creates her own shot easily and often.
“They are the gym rats. . . . They’re always working hard in practice,” Aston said. “They’re always doing their job. They’re always prepared, and they expect everybody to follow that. But sometimes there has to be more than that. Sometimes there has to be a hard conversation. . . That’s the next step of leadership for those two, and they are ready to take that step.”
Whether that leadership process moves forward enough this month to carry Texas to the Final Four is yet to be seen. But this is a team that cleaned up the awards in the Big 12. Aston was Coach of the Year, McCarty Player of the Year, Brianna Taylor Defensive POY, and forward Joyner Holmes Freshman of the Year. Atkins made the all-defensive team. That’s a lot of potential in one roster.
Through the season, the Longhorns have scored about the same 73 points a game. The stars’ scoring average has remained constant. What has changed is the cohesiveness of team play, and much improved defense, evident in all those awards. When the team is mentally focused and physically sharp, they are capable of beating any team in the field.
One of the least-predictable of the key contributors is the Holmes, a 6-3 forward. Highly-regarded coming out of high school for her size and guard-like skills, she has shown that she can contribute everything the team had hoped she would, but only on certain days. The excitement in Aston’s tone was obvious when discussing her freshman.
“She came in here with some very unique physical tools, and she had the opportunity to learn because there was that hole in the four position that let her play a lot from the very start,” Aston said. “She’s had some incredible highs and some incredible lows, and that experience made her better. I thought she hit that proverbial freshman wall, . . . but I think she’ll regroup and rejuvenate and be a lot better in the NCAA tournament than she was down the stretch.”
Aston said Holmes’ game acumen is her strongest quality.
“Her IQ is incredibly high which gives her an opportunity to be a really, really, really special player because she does understand what’s supposed to happen,” Aston said. “I say she’s a step ahead in her mind. That’s a unique quality for any player, but more so for one that’s her size.”
At the same time, the freshman has proven extremely coachable.
“Another thing that surprised me was that she really bought into rebounding,” Aston said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that she’s been willing to get in there and get dirty & rebound. At times she’s been able to lead our break. When you look at the talented freshmen across the country, I can’t put on one hand the ones that really, really met those expectations put on them. And she one who has done so.”
Texas drew a three-seed in the Tournament, and therefore hosts the first two rounds in Austin. Last night they crushed Central Arkansas, 78-50 with a defense that was organized and active, and all 11 players scored at least four points. Next up tomorrow is No. 6 NC State. A second win would take the Longhorns to the Lexington Regional, where Stanford is the No. 2, and Notre Dame the No. 1 seed.
Aston has revived her Texas team from a slide into mediocrity, bringing them back to national prominence in just six years at the helm. She has a refreshing willingness to discuss the challenges facing her team, along with a coach’s fierce loyalty to her players.
“The thing that I love is that they are a really good bunch of kids. Like, I don’t have a lot of off-the-court issues, we don’t seem to have a lot of drama,” Aston said. “They don’t seem to take things too seriously. And that seems to be their best quality and their worst quality all at once.”
Her team’s fondness of their coach, and their goofiness, is exemplified by Taylor’s whimsical description of Aston.
“She’s like a roasted marshmallow,” Taylor said with a smile. “You know, when you roast a marshmallow, it gets all crispy and hard on the outside but inside it’s all mushy and gushy? Your freshman year you only see the outside hard crispiness, but by senior year, you start to see the inside and how much she cares about us.”
No doubt, both parts of the roasted marshmallow this weekend. Texas has proven its ability to beat really good teams. Can they get to the third round and then get past Stanford and (probably) Notre Dame? Why not?