Texas turnaround fueled by “fortitude” and work ethic of players who want the program to succeed
It’s been a while since Texas (24-10) went dancing in the Sweet 16, eleven years to be precise. During that time, coaching legend Jody Conradt stepped down after a historic career then former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors took over to lead a rejuvenation of the program. However, she resigned after five seasons and a 102-64 record citing fatigue and a need to step away from the game.
In those five seasons under Goestenkors, the Longhorns earned berths to the NCAA tournament but lost in the first round during the last four years of her tenure. Texas wasted no time, about two weeks, in hiring Karen Aston from North Texas to take over the program. The team is now on an upswing, competing in the Albany regional semifinals along with top-ranked Connecticut (34-1), No. 3 seed Louisville (27-6), and No. 7 Dayton (27-6).
After beating the No. 4 seed California, 73-70, Sunday night on the road in Berkeley, the fifth-seeded Longhorns headed to the Sweet 16, making an East Coast trip to face their next opponent, UConn. The Huskies lead the series between the two teams, 5-0.
The last time Texas reached the regional semifinals in 2004, Aston was an assistant under Jody Conradt, the Longhorns were ranked No. 4 in the nation and beat Southern and Michigan State at home before flying to Seattle and losing to Louisiana State during the regional semifinals.
Texas entered this season on a high note, ranked ninth in the nation in the Associated Press poll, the first time the team was in the top 10 since November 2009 and was the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 regular season title. They went undefeated until early January, when they fell to Iowa State on the road. Three games later, senior forward Nneka Enemkpali tore her left anterior cruciate ligament during a game vs. Baylor. She led the Big 12 conference in double-doubles and rebounds when her season ended.
However, the team recovered from losing Enempkpali as well as injuries to other players and made it to the Big 12 tournament final before losing to Baylor. The Longhorns powered through Western Kentucky and Cal in the NCAAs for a chance to reach the Elite 8 for the first time since 2003 when they reached the Final Four in Atlanta. Overall, it is the team’s 12 trip to the Sweet 16.
“I think it’s just huge for us right now,” said Karen Aston about reaching the Sweet 16 after her team defeated Cal Sunday night. “We wanted to take this next step. It was a huge goal of our team. Right now in the moment, I’m just so proud of them because of all of the adversity this year.”
The injury to Enempkpali took its toll on the team as they lost the next six of seven games before putting together a string of wins before ending the regular season strong.
“When Nneka went down, it was hard for all of us,” said guard Ariel Atkins. “It wasn’t just about her leaving the team but about Nneka being hurt. But, as a team we just came together and tried to fill all the grey areas because she was a huge part of our team so we just tried to stay together.
Aston also addressed the emotional impact of injuries
“I think there was a time when we all doubted each other and for them to turn this thing around and get to the championship of the Big 12 tournament and then regroup and turn around and do this is a testament to their work ethic and their fortitude but also that they want this program to move forward.”
The last Texas win over a No. 1-ranked team in the AP poll was against Tennessee, 74-59, on Nov. 25, 2004 in Austin.
NCAA Championship Regional Semifinal
- No. 5 Texas Longhorns (24-10) vs. No. 1 UConn Huskies (34-1)
- Date/Time:Saturday, March 28 | 12 p.m ET
- Site: Albany, N.Y. | Times Union Center
- TV: ESPN/WatchESPN – Dave O’Brien (play-by-play), Doris Burke (analyst), Holly Rowe (reporter)
- Radio:KVET AM-1300 The Zone or TexasSports.com