Texas completed its first perfect January in 28 years as it pushed past No. 22 West Virginia 69-54 Sunday afternoon.
The No. 12 Longhorns ride a 14-game win streak. They’ve opened conference play with 10 straight victories — shattering the previous program record.
While Texas entered this season with plenty of momentum and high expectations, a cloud of uncertainty loomed on the 40 Acres, too.
The team entered the 2016-17 campaign coming off Texas’ first NCAA Elite Eight appearance since 2003. That 31-win team boasted a slew of core talent, headlined by WNBA first-round pick Imani Boyette.
Texas also lost three four-year starters, including its leader on and off the court in point guard Celina Rodrigo.
Those losses made it unclear as to the program’s future. A new batch of talent stepped in, giving Texas the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation, according to ESPN.
But those new stars could do little to replace the veteran core of the previous year.
Without the necessary growth, the season might have devolved into rebuilding in preparation for 2018 — and it looked to be trending that way as Texas dropped four of its first six contests.
Head coach Karen Aston acknowledged growing concerns at the start of the season. Entering her fifth year at the helm, Aston understood the somewhat precarious situation in which Texas found itself.
“The other difficult part for this group is that when you look at our starting lineup, aside from Kelsey Lang, every player is in a new role,” Aston said back in November. “It takes time to adjust to the new roles. I would be discouraged if I didn’t think the future of this group looked good.”
Though it took some time, the dubious direction of the season straightened out, and the Longhorns (16–4, 10–0 Big 12) are on track to make another postseason run.
Called to step up, the team’s only two seniors, guard Brianna Taylor and center Kelsey Lang, evolved into vocal and steady leaders. Alongside junior guards Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins — Texas’ two leading scorers — the four have willed this young squad to the best conference start on record.
“The collective job that those four have done has been tremendous in just a sense of where we started with their leadership and where we are now,” Aston said.
That leadership has shown itself in the rapid development of freshman forward Joyner Holmes. Already third highest on the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game, Holmes has blossomed into the offensive threat Texas badly needed if it was to remain in contention.
Holmes credits the guidance of her teammates and fellow starters in allowing her to be effective.
“I think I follow mostly behind my counterparts like Kelsey,” Holmes said. “And I think Ariel and Brooke and Bri do a great job of leading, so I just follow them and then I try to step into my role as best as I can.”
That leadership may not always be evident from the fan perspective. But it’s those small things that Aston continually emphasizes that allowed the cohesive and seemingly tournament-ready team that Longhorn faithful cheers for each night to emerge.
“Again, when you talk about the young players, that’s something that (the upperclassmen) have done a really great job with — is just kind of taking the young ones under their wing,” Aston said. “And you might still not hear them, but you can see them pulling them to the side and trying to, what I would call, mentor them.”