Alecia “Sug” Sutton was all smiles.
Texas had just been named as a No. 2 seed in the Kansas City Regional. Sutton grew up 250 miles east in St. Louis. To make the Sweet 16 would mean playing in front of family, friends and likely a former teammate.
Of course, she had to make it there first.
Sutton wanted to do everything she could to ensure the Longhorns reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Sutton comes off the bench, though, and it seemed like her opportunities would be limited at first.
“I mean, the rotation trims in tournament play. I think that’s a realistic statement,” Texas head coach Karen Aston said on March 16, before the Longhorns’ first round matchup with 15-seeded Maine. “I think the bigger key is just getting everybody prepared, even if it’s a minute or two.”
The sophomore guard and the rest of Texas’ reserves were determined to change Aston’s mind. In the first two rounds of March Madness, the Longhorns are averaging 20 bench points per game, up from 15.3 per game during the Big 12 Tournament. Aston subbed in six reserves in both victories.
Sutton led the way with seven points against Maine on March 17 and six against Arizona State on Monday.
“It’s been very fun for us,” Sutton said. “We worked hard this whole season for those two games and for this postseason. I feel like it’s just our work ethic that just got us here, and we’re just having fun as a team and we’re having fun in practice. So, I think it’s translating into the games.”
UCLA freshman forward Lauryn Miller paid close attention. There was a good chance the two would see each other in the tournament. She wasn’t surprised by anything Sutton did.
Miller and Sutton know each other too well. They grew up together in St. Louis and played for the same Amateur Athletic Union, AAU, team from middle school until Sutton moved to the 40 Acres. Their friendship grew in high school, where Miller’s Kirkwood Pioneers battled Sutton’s Parkway North Vikings at least three times a year.
“It was always back and forth, it could always go out either way,” Miller said. “It was always a big matchup. St Louis always came out to come watch the game.”
“Her work ethic was something that I just wanted to model. Me being a year younger than her, she was a good friend I could look up to.”
The pair got to catch up with each other before the season started during a scrimmage in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Longhorns and Bruins practiced team-building exercises and in-game scenarios. Between segments, they dreamed about playing each other again in an actual game down the road.
Neither expected the opportunity to arise so quickly.
“Whenever I came to UCLA, we used to always joke about who was going to beat who, but that was just casual talk,” Miller said. “We never thought it would be actually happening especially in my freshman year so it’s really exciting to have it this year.”
Two-seeded Texas will take on 3-seeded UCLA at the Sprint Center on Friday at 8 p.m. in the Kansas City Regional semifinal.
Miller and Sutton are excited to see each other again but remain competitors at everything they do — even bringing in crowds.
“You know, I can’t even count how many (friends and family are coming to the game),” Sutton said. “People texting me all over the place. I’d say 20-plus are coming.”
“I have 30,” Miller said.