Longhorns ready to take another step forward in NCAA Tournament

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Sophomore guard Ariel Atkins protects the ball from a Mizzou defender Monday night at the Erwin Center. Atkins and the Long- horns play UCLA in the Sweet 16 Saturday.
Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

Head coach Karen Aston had her team in the Sweet 16 last year, but that season had a different feel to it than this one. Aston had Texas as one of the final 16 teams standing for the first time since 2004. They were just happy to be there. 

This season, Texas enters Bridgeport, Connecticut, with a No. 2 seed attached to its name — a few steps up from the five seed it garnered last year. 

“[We] have an opportunity to take another step, which we didn’t get to take last year, which was to the Elite 8,” Aston said. “And we have that opportunity again.”

The opportunity brings the possibility of matching up against the team that knocked the Longhorns out of last year’s tournament — the Connecticut Huskies. 

But before the potential Elite 8 rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game, Texas will have to go through UCLA, the No. 3 seed in the Bridgeport region, at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ve got to play the Bruins,” Aston said when asked about potentially facing Connecticut. “Our team, they will be locked in. They understand that UCLA is really good, and [it’s] one thing at a time.”

The Longhorns played the Bruins last season in Los Angeles, where Texas came out on top, 75-65. But Aston said that UCLA is a much different team than it was on Nov. 23, 2014. 

She said UCLA is more mature now having won the WNIT last season. Maturity is a tag that Aston has stuck to her team all season. 

Even the underclassman have developed and matured under Aston. In the win over Missouri Monday night, the guard duo of freshman Lashann Higgs and sophomore Ariel Atkins combined for 33 of its 73 points.

But it has been the seniors who have carried Texas to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, and the underclassmen know it.

“I think that our seniors, they have grown up so much,” Higgs said. “I continuously talk about them, because [they’re] the face of this program.”

The seniors walked off the court at the Frank Erwin Center for the last time Monday night. Aston said that she didn’t know how they would handle the emotions of playing in their last game at home. 

The four seniors didn’t have their best outing of the season, combining for only 18 points on 25 percent shooting. But in the win, the stats didn’t matter. 

Even senior guard Brady Sanders, who is battling a tweaked foot according to Aston, recorded two minutes of action.

“They never allowed us to get overwhelmed when we had a failure or even too high when we had success, and I would attribute all of that so the seniors,” Aston said. “It was wonderful to see them go out tonight like they did.”

The season for the seniors is not over. They still have one more step to take.