Tougher Texas rolls into March Madness after early stumbles
AUSTIN, Texas — There were many times this season Texas coach Vic Schaefer questioned his team's toughness as the Longhorns tumbled from a preseason No. 3 all the to unranked while injuries and early losses mounted.
Schaefer has definitely changed his tune now.
The Longhorns fought the the early struggles and lineup changes in a surge to a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, the program's first since 2004, and swept co-champ Oklahoma along the way.
And just as critically, they earned an all-important No. 4 seed in the women's NCAA tournament that allowed Texas to be one of the host schools for the first two rounds. Texas (25-9) will play No. 13 East Carolina (23-9) Saturday night in the Seattle 4 Region.
“I couldn't be more proud of them, for their toughness and resilience because they have overcome a lot,” Schaefer said.
After consecutive runs to the Elite Eight the past two seasons, Texas started 5-4 and saw its roster depleted first by a foot injury to star point guard Rori Harmon that forced her out for five games, then a knee injury that ended forward Ailiyah Moore's season on Dec. 11.
But that was just the start. The team seemed shaken and unsettled by constantly shifting lineups as rotation players missed a total of 49 games with injuries.
Graduate transfer guard Shaylee Gonzales is the only Longhorn to start every game this season. And even those on the court seemed to struggle to shake off their own aches and pains of a long season.
“We’re not very tough,” Schafer complained at midseason. “It’s an Achilles of this team.”
Harmon, Texas' sparkplug player on both ends of the court, heard that and was determined to change it. She led the resurgence on the court and in the locker room.
“Are you going to let it be fuel to your fire," Harmon said. "Or are you going to let it hurt you?”
Harmon mirrored her coach with some pointed comments about lack of hustle from teammates after a late-season loss to Baylor.
“He wants to make sure I'm holding everyone else accountable around me,” Harmon said. "I'm trying to do that."
A Texas team hitting its peak faces an East Carolina team on a run of its own. The Pirates are in the tournament for just the third time in program history and the first since 2007. They got here by tearing through the American Athletic Conference tournament.
“That's three games in three days. That takes toughness and clearly they have it,” Texas guard Shay Holle said.
Dana McNeal leads the Pirates, averaging nearly 18 points per game.
Now they face Texas on the Longhorns' new home court. Although Texas has been a frequent host in the NCAA Tournament, the Moody Center is a brand new arena that opened in April 2022. It replaced the 45-year-old Frank Erwin Center just a few blocks away.
Guard Synia Johnson said the Pirates won't be intimidated playing so far from home. They won their conference tournament far from home in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We had no fans really at all," Johnson said. “You could count on one hand how many fans we had. We still came out on top. As long as we have each other.”
LOUISVILLE vs. DRAKE
Like Texas, No. 5 seed Louisville (23-11) was in the top 10 in the preseason only to plummet out of the rankings. A Final Four team a year ago, Louisville had four losses by early December.
The Cardinals are not hosting the first two rounds for the first time since 2015, not including the 2021 tournament when the entire thing was played in Texas because of the pandemic.
Drake (22-9) was the highest-scoring team in the Missouri Valley Conference and averaged 82 points over its last five games. The Bulldogs' 48% shooting ranked No. 5 nationally, and five players average 10 points or more. Drake reached the NCAA Tournament by winning the MVC tournament.
“They read and react extremely well at the offensive end,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “If you have a mental breakdown, they're going to expose you.”
The Bulldogs can get sloppy with the ball. Drake averaged nearly 18 turnovers per game, and Louisville has turned up the pressure of late. The Cardinals averaged 20 points of turnovers in the ACC tournament.
That comes with the territory of the up-tempo offense they play, Bair said.
“Limiting our turnovers and not shooting ourselves in the foot is key for us,” Bair said. “Try to limit them, but I wouldn't change anything now. It's gotten us this far.”