Texas rallies late to beat Western Kentucky in NCAA opener

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) Texas and Western Kentucky became accustomed to close, wild finishes when they met in the NCAA Tournament.

Thirty years later was no different. The programs resumed their old March rivalry with another thriller.

Brooke McCarty made two free throws for Texas with 20.8 seconds left and Alexis Govan missed a potential winning 3-pointer for Western Kentucky in the final seconds, sending the fifth-seeded Longhorns to a 66-64 victory in the first round on Friday.

”I told the players after the game this was a hard-fought win and there’s no shame it went down to the wire,” Texas coach Karen Aston said.

Imani McGee-Stafford had 24 points and 14 rebounds as sloppy Texas overcame 19 turnovers – including one that could have cost the Longhorns the game – and erased a late seven-point deficit.

Ivy Brown’s 3-pointer with 39.5 seconds left got Western Kentucky (30-5) within one, then Texas lost the inbounds pass with 38.3 to go on Brady Sanders’ turnover.

Texas (23-10), which missed chances in the first half by committing 13 turnovers, will face No. 4 seed California on Sunday in the second round.

Chastity Gooch scored 25 points and Govan had 20 for Conference USA champion Western Kentucky, which earned an automatic berth after winning three tournament games by eight combined points.

Govan converted a key four-point play with 8:37 remaining and another big 3 with 3:55 left, and Micah Jones hit a pair of timely 3s late. Govan would get the ball again with the game on the line.

”It looked good,” Govan said. ”I just wasn’t able to connect on the shot.”

Kelsey Lang added 11 rebounds in 21 minutes for a Texas team that dealt with the devastating losses of forwards Nneka Enemkpali and Nekia Jones to knee injuries in the past two months. The 6-foot-7 McGee-Stafford rediscovered her form after being slowed by a hurt foot early in the year.

McGee-Stafford says Texas is playing for those who are sidelined, knowing how hard they would be working if still on the floor.

The Lady Toppers swarmed McGee-Stafford from every which way.

Govan, all of 5-10, did her best to front McGee-Stafford but had a hard time denying the ball.

Former Texas coach Jody Conradt was in attendance as the programs renewed an old NCAA rivalry from the mid-1980s – playing on the big March stage for the first time since the Hall of Famer was on the Longhorns’ bench.

In 1985, Western Kentucky beat Texas on a buzzer beater that denied the Longhorns a spot in their own regional. Texas responded with an undefeated season the following year, beating the Lady Toppers 90-65 at the Final Four on the way to the championship.

Conradt reminded Aston about all those old battles back in the day. The programs played for six straight seasons from 1985-90 but not since.

”We renewed that rivalry,” Conradt said, noting when she saw the draw, ”I just started to smile that day. We haven’t played each other at all except when it’s gotten to crunch time.”

Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard, back at her alma mater, played against Texas in each of her four seasons with the Lady Toppers.

”At the end of the day it’s hard to swallow. I’m so proud of that group,” Clark-Heard said. ”We’re hungry for more. We’re going to keep working so we’ll be back in this position next year.”

TURNOVER TIME

Texas cleaned up its ball movement in the second half after the early mistakes.

Aston made a point of it with her players.

”We quit turning the ball over and started attacking,” she said. ”I’m proud of our players for hanging in there. It wasn’t easy.”

TIP-INS:

Western Kentucky: The Lady Toppers lost their fourth straight NCAA Tournament opener – 2003, `08 and last year. … Western Kentucky shot 12 for 32 from 3-point range while holding Texas to 1 of 14.

Texas: Texas leads the all-time series 5-2. … The Longhorns improved to 4-0 in the first round as a No. 5 seed, their seed for the second straight year. … Texas opened the tournament in the Pacific time zone for the first time. … The Longhorns held a 48-29 rebounding advantage.

UP NEXT:

Western Kentucky’s season is over.

Texas faces California on Sunday night.