After a season marked by injuries and other setbacks, Texas’ chances at a postseason run looked slim — but two weeks into the NCAA Tournament, the Longhorns have yet to falter.
“We’re excited to go to the Sweet 16,” head coach Karen Aston said. “There was a point in time where I don’t think anybody saw this coming at all. They thought we were done. I really can’t say enough about our staff and our players who were willing to do whatever they had to do for us to get to a better spot.”
Fifth-seeded Texas (24–10) now faces another daunting task. Saturday’s regional semifinal matchup puts the Longhorns against the team many pundits predict will win it all — Connecticut. They’re the top overall seed, two-time defending champions, and a team Texas has never been able to beat.
UConn (32–1) has the top-rated scoring offense and defense in the nation, averaging nearly 90 points a game offensively and only allowing about 48 points per game. The Huskies have also advanced to the regional final, otherwise known as the Elite Eight, every year for nine years.
Its only loss this year was to Stanford in November. Days later, Texas defeated Stanford.
Much has changed for the Longhorns since that victory. The team went through a rough patch, starting 4–8 in conference play. But more recently, they’ve hit their stride; Texas won nine of its last 11 games.
“I think our team is really resilient,” Aston said. “We’re not where we want to be, obviously, but we’re making progress.”
In their first two NCAA Tournament games, the Longhorns forced 33 turnovers and outscored their opponents in the paint, 94–34. But the games still remained close. Texas only defeating first-round opponent Western Kentucky by two points and beat California, in the next round, by three.
That is one reason Texas will rely on its defense and receive contributions from its bench, which has outscored its two previous opponents’ bench, 54–15.
“Defense is something we’ve tried to focus on and make it our identity,” said junior center Imani McGee-Stafford, who has secured back-to-back double-doubles during NCAA Tournament play. “We just tried to focus on what makes us, us in the second half [against Cal]. [And] you never really know who could start for us. That’s the beauty of us right now; we are very deep, and whoever we need to matchup with, we can.”
Texas will continue to look for production from McGee-Stafford, as well as from freshman Brooke McCarty, who is coming off the bench averaging 13 points in the tournament.
“I think I just had to go out there and start playing [because] I was really nervous at first,” McCarty said. “I think I just had to get over my nerves. My teammates have really helped me and just believed in me.”
Texas and UConn tip off the Albany Regional Sweet 16 on Saturday at 11 a.m. on ESPN.