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.
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.”
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.”
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.”