Head coach Karen Aston walked into the Texas locker room following Sunday’s second-round win in the NCAA Tournament and gave high fives to all 13 of her players.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” she said as she walked around a half-circle of chairs where her Longhorns celebrated their 84-80 victory over North Carolina State, advancing them to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive year.
The Longhorns’ victory over the Wolfpack wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t need to be.
Aston’s team was down 75-71 with about four minutes left in the game. But she wasn’t worried.
“I knew that we were gonna win at about the four-minute mark when I saw you guys talking to each other,” Aston told her team in the locker room. “And telling each other that this was not gonna happen. Nobody let each other get down on themselves, and that was the difference.”
Texas’ fight was apparent in the ensuing four minutes on the court. A jumper and four made free throws gave Texas its first lead of the fourth quarter with 1:32 remaining. The drama was just beginning.
After knocking down the free throw that gave Texas the lead, junior guard Ariel Atkins, who struggled all day against the Wolfpack, fouled out. Texas’ most vocal leader could only watch, crouched down on the sideline, as her teammates took the court for the final 51 seconds.
“It was a pretty tough game for me,” Atkins said. “But my teammates always have my back, and I think that’s one of the most unique things about our team — our depth. We know how to pick each other up when somebody’s not having a good night.”
From the bench, Atkins thought the same thing as her coach. All she could do was encourage her teammates on the court, but she never doubted them.
“We gotta stay focused,” Atkins said. “Look into each other’s eyes, and stay focused on each other. That’s the most important thing. Because when the crowd gets rowdy, you can barely hear your coach, so it’s really important to stay tuned with each other.”
Unlike Atkins, freshman forward Joyner Holmes was in the thick of the action down to the final buzzer. Up by one with eight seconds to go, Holmes took a charge, erasing a bucket that would have given NC State back the lead.
She followed the charge with a put-back shot, sealing Texas’ win.
Holmes is the first to admit she wasn’t always having fun when Texas was struggling in the games leading up to the NCAA Tournament, dropping four of its last six.
But Sunday against the Wolfpack, Holmes was enjoying the game so much that she refused to let it be the last of the season.
“It was really fun, and we had a great time,” Holmes said. “Seeing the look on my seniors’ faces and letting them know this is not the last game. Although we all didn’t have our best game, we were going to pull it out for them.”