Longhorns thriving entering tournament
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Texas point guard Rori Harmon began the season sidelined by a foot injury. Kyndall Hunter, Harmon’s All-America co-star at Cypress Creek, has been away from the team all season. Rising forward Aaliyah Moore’s sophomore campaign ended Dec. 11 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Starting guard and third-leading scorer Sonya Morris hasn’t played since Feb. 4.
That’s not just a few bumps in the road. Those are straight-up hazards, the sort that can send a team careening off course. But Texas hasn’t merely survived these past four months. Since stumbling out of the gate, it has overcome injuries, absences and a dearth of knockdown shooters to make some history.
Texas (23-8) won its first Big 12 title since 2004, finishing as co-champion with Oklahoma. It landed the top seed in this week’s Big 12 women’s tournament at Municipal Auditorium. It’s 11th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, primed to earn a top-four seed and host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games back home at the Moody Center.
All things considered, that’s a pretty stunning season for third-year coach Vic Schaefer and his group. And on the eve of Texas’ Big 12 quarterfinal matchup against either No. 8 seed Texas Tech (18-13) or No. 9 seed Kansas State (1615) Friday at 1:30 p.m., Schaefer sees a team that still has much room for growth.
“I don’t think we can sit here today going into the Big 12 tournament and say, ‘Yeah, we’re playing our best basketball, and we’re rolling,’ ” Schaefer said. “We still have the Big 12 tournament to navigate. And whoever we get that first night, it’ll be a team that wants to beat the crap outta Texas. That’s just the way it is. My job is to manage this team, try to keep some momentum of how we’re playing and, at the same time, try to get better.”
Texas is 20-4 since Dec. 3. Two of those losses came in its past five games, a 6661 loss at No. 22 Iowa State on Feb. 13 and a 63-54 loss to Baylor on Feb. 27. The latter prevented the Longhorns from claiming an outright Big 12 championship.
That letdown against the Bears — not exactly the Kevlar-clad Bears once led by incendiary Hall of Famer Kim Mulkey, either — in particular struck a nerve. Both Schaefer and Harmon bemoaned the Longhorns’ lackadaisical performance and apparent timidity after Texas shot 35.6 percent and committed 17 turnovers in the loss.
“We know what we’re capable of,” junior guard Shay Holle said. “And part of toughness is being consistent, and we were lacking in that piece and still are working on it. And he (Schaefer) is always going to be honest with us. We all have tried to improve our own games and our own toughness, and collectively, that’s helped a lot. Obviously, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”
Schaefer can be, well, a little dramatic. And longwinded, though that’s another story.
And while Texas did fail to match Baylor’s energy that day, it would be wrong to characterize this team as lacking in its coach’s favorite intangible: toughness.
Harmon might be only 5-foot-6, but the Big 12 defensive player of the year is a terror on the ball and in the passing lanes.
Junior forward DeYona Gaston has turned into a nightly double-double threat who’s blocked nine shots over the past four games. Holle’s a grinder, and backup bigs Taylor Jones and Khadija Faye have added another layer of physicality to the league’s top scoring defense.
Given how well Texas has played for about four months now, it’s the betting favorite to win its second straight Big 12 tournament title. But even after all the Longhorns have endured and achieved this season, Harmon and Co. believe there’s yet another level to be found as they chase an even greater prize down the road.
“How are we gonna win? That’s what I’m thinking (on the court),” Harmon said. “What are the things we need to do that we’re good at to win? Because you don’t do things during the game you’re not good at. I’ve seen what this team is capable of. We just need to find a way to be consistent. And like Coach Schaefer said, we still have a lot to improve.”