The Longhorns’ 2016–17 season reflects a program continuously on the rise.
The triumph of beating a dominant Baylor team for the first time in seven years, a 19-game winning streak packed with a pair wins over top-four opponents and a third consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 all symbolize a team on the verge of reaching great heights.
But Texas walked off the court inside Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, late Friday night with disappointment after losing to Stanford in the Sweet 16.
“I just feel this game here, and this feeling here is our motivation for next year,” freshman forward Joyner Holmes said. “I think we’ll be pretty good next year. We’ve just got to put the work in over the summer.”
After reaching the Elite Eight in 2016, the Longhorns knew they were capable of reaching the Final Four this time around — a year-long goal that, although not achieved, will not be left behind with the Sweet 16 departure.
“Well, I don’t think (expectations) can be any greater (next season) because we expected to go to a Final Four,” head coach Karen Aston said. “I mean, that was our goal. And it was a realistic goal. So I don’t know that our expectations will be any different next year. We expect to be challenging for the Big 12 championship. We expect to be a contender.”
Coming into the season, Texas had to fill the gaps of key players from a 2016 team that finished with a 31–5 record, most notably center Imani Boyette. Boyette departed as one of the most dominant bigs Texas has ever seen, becoming the first player in school history to record 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocks in her career.
But it quickly became apparent that Holmes, the top recruit from Cedar Hill, and senior center Kelsey Lang were able to take care of business inside for the Longhorns. Lang swatted away a team-high 79 shots on the season, and Holmes led the team in rebounding, averaging 8.2 per game. Her 6-foot-3-inch frame matched with her speed allowed her to grab rebounds and glide down the court to finish on offensive end, earning her Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Texas began its regular season with a gruesome schedule. The wins didn’t come at first, but once mid-December hit, the Longhorns found themselves breezing past opponents en route to a 19-game winning streak, the second longest in the country at the time and their best start to conference play in school history.
“You’re talking about a lot of young players that got a lot of really valuable experience against quality opponents,” Aston said. “They’ll learn from it, and they’ll be motivated by it.”
The Longhorns overcame a late-season slump with a comfortable victory over Central Arkansas in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament and a last-second thrilling victory over North Carolina State that advanced them to their third-consecutive Sweet 16.
“When you look at the journey this team had … it was quite a journey,” Aston said. “A lot of young players really grew up this year. I’m tremendously excited about the future. Not just because of who we have coming in, but just who we have returning.”
Texas’ three best scorers — Big 12 Player of the Year and junior guard Brooke McCarty, junior guard Ariel Atkins and Holmes — will all hit the court again for Aston next season.
Pair those returners with a duo of incoming McDonald’s All-Americans and ESPN top-four recruits — Rellah Boothe and Chasity Patterson — and Aston has something special brewing in Austin.
“If I knew the answer, I would tell you,” Atkins said when asked how the team could get over the hump and make it to the Final Four. “But I’m going to figure it out this summer.”