AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Texas was on a big win streak and sitting on top of the Big 12.
Then came four losses in the last six games, a skid that sent the No. 3-seed Longhorns stumbling onto their home court for the opening round of the women’s NCAA Tournament. It’s not exactly the kind of momentum push Texas was looking for.
After advancing to last season’s final eight, Texas opened the season with big expectations, only to bookend it with struggles early and late. The Longhorns started 2-4, then won 19 in a row before the tough finish dashed their hopes of upending Baylor for the Big 12 regular-season championship.
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The worst came after a home loss to Baylor, when coach Karen Aston and her team had to hear Bears coach Kim Mulkey say she still had the league’s dominant program. Two weeks later, a loss to West Virginia in the conference tournament denied them a rematch.
Aston had to dig deep to get her team sorted out.
”There was this first moment of a few days of disappointment and probably being mad … a lot of emotions that we needed to sort of work through,” Aston said as the Longhorns (23-8) prepared for Friday’s matchup with No. 14 Central Arkansas (26-4) in the first round of the Lexington Regional. Friday’s other game in Austin pits No. 6 North Carolina State (22-8) against No. 11 Auburn (17-14).
Texas senior forward Kelsey Lang made sure her younger teammates shook off the blues before the start of her final NCAA Tournament. She’s was in Aston’s first recruiting class in a five-year rebuilding project that has the Longhorns nudging their way among the nation’s elite programs.
Despite the late losses, Texas was still impressive enough to the tournament selection committee to be a tournament host for the second year in a row.
”The upperclassmen really had to get the point across that once you lose, you’re out,” Lang said. ”For us, we’re done. I think it was important to get the underclassmen to understand how important taking every single moment is.”
Here’s some things to know when Friday’s games tip off in Austin:
North Carolina State comes to Austin sporting a Texas-sized dose of feeling disrespected. The Wolfpack felt they deserved a higher-seed with a possibility to be a first-round host. North Carolina State went 12-4 in the ACC and got four wins over top-15 teams, including a January victory over Notre Dame, the region’s No. 1 seed.
Five ACC teams are hosting the first weekend, including Miami, which finished seventh in the league, but the Wolfpack were sent to play nearly 1,200 miles away from home.
”There’s nothing we can do about it now,” said Wolfpack guard Miah Spencer, one of four senior starters. ”We’ve had a chip on our shoulder since the beginning of the year because we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year … We’re here to win.”
LAST TEAM IN?
Unlike North Carolina State, Auburn feels relieved just to make the tournament. The Tigers lost nine of their last 12 and were one of the last at-large teams to make it. Auburn players said they were nervous they’d be left out.
”As soon as I saw out name on the TV, (we) were like, `Oh, it’s go time,”’ Auburn senior guard Brandy Montgomery said.
Central Arkansas is about to experience the sheer size of the Big 12. The Sugar Bears have only two players taller than 6-feet and just barely that as post players Raquel Logan and Kierra Jordan are 6-1. Texas has six players at least 6-3, tying Kansas State and Oregon as the tallest teams in the nation this season.
”Regardless of size we can play against anybody,” Central Arkansas senior guard Brianna Mullins said. ”They’re bigger, I’m sure they maybe a little stronger, a little quicker. But my teammates have the heart to come out and basketball.”
Auburn plays an aggressive full-court pressure defense that coach Terri Williams-Flournoy says is influenced by former Arkansas men’s coach Nolan Richardson and his ”40 minutes of hell.” And she breaks it down to the second, from how much time opponents take before reaching midcourt, to how much is left on the shot clock when they finally take one. Auburn ranks second nationally in forcing turnover at 22.2 per game.
That kind of defense helped Auburn rally to win from at least 17 points down three times this season.
”All in people’s face … We’re relentless. We’re not going to get out of it,” guard senior guard Brandy Montgomery said.
SWEET AS A SUGAR BEAR
Central Arkansas has one of the most distinctive mascots in college basketball. School officials say there’s no special story behind it, only that decades ago the school wanted a nickname that set the women’s team apart from the men’s team. The name may sound soft but the school logo is the face of snarling bear.
”I think we’ve got the best mascot in the country,” said coach Sandra Rushing. ”Somebody asked me where did it come from? I said it’s just because we’re so sweet.”