Many Texas players saw their first collegiate postseason action Sunday afternoon, and the fifth-seeded Longhorns were shaky at times before pulling away from No. 12 seed Penn, 79-61 in College Park, Md.
Head coach Karen Aston’s team struggled early, repeatedly trading leads with the Quakers early in the first half as neither team led by more than four points.
Texas fell behind soon after, as 12 first-half turnovers and poor shooting kept the Longhorns stuck at 17 points for more than nine minutes. Sophomore guard Celina Rodrigo finally broke the drought with a jumper, but the damage had already been done.
“They came ready to play and they’re a good basketball team,” Aston said in a statement after the game. “I think we just didn’t know how good they were.”
It was Aston’s first time in the tournament since taking over as head coach for the Longhorns, but she had been there before, when she helped lead Texas to the Final Four as an associate head coach in 2003.
Among Texas’ challenges was scraping off the rust. The Longhorns hadn’t played a game since March 9, when West Virginia defeated them in the semifinals of the Big 12 Championship series. The Longhorns finally seemed to get warmed up at the end of the first, though on a 14-6 run to cut the deficit to seven.
Texas continued its spurt after halftime, featuring a complete role reversal after Penn’s dominance nearly took Texas’ chances.
“We told them at halftime: either you wanna go home or you don’t,” Aston said.
Apparently, they didn’t. The Longhorns newfound energy and drive, sinking the first two baskets en route to a lead around the 14-minute mark. Within minutes, Penn found itself dug deep into a hole.
The Quakers — playing in front of a supportive crowd only two hours away from home — knew they had lost with just over a minute to go. As each player returned to the bench, she received a standing ovation from the crowd and hugs from coaches before settling into watching the season end.
The Longhorns’ victory was their first NCAA tournament win since 2008, and they will face fourth-seeded Maryland on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The Terrapins will be playing on their home court.
“We’re gonna have to play harder for 40 minutes,” Aston said.