Texas women's basketball coach Karen Aston doesn’t want her team to just settle for open looks. She’s not content with players spreading the floor and creating shot opportunities. Aston has a very specific demand.
In true Texas fashion, she sends her guards huntin’.
"Our guards looked for shots, they hunted shots and were aggressive, which opened up the post play,” Aston told Longhorn Network on Tuesday after Texas, the No. 5 seed in the Albany Regional of the NCAA tournament, knocked out No. 4 seed Cal 73-70. “We had a balanced attack."
Indeed, the Longhorns put four players in double figures against the Bears to advance to their first Sweet 16 in 11 years. To reach their first Elite Eight since 2003, however, Texas must beat No. 1 Connecticut on Saturday afternoon. How unlikely would a win over the two-time defending champion Huskies be? ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight algorithm puts the Longhorns’ chance at 1 percent.
In order to pull such an unlikely upset, there are three things Texas must do:
1. Own the paint
The Longhorns have surrendered 29.8% shooting on three-pointers this season, good for 87th in the nation, but their overall field goal percentage defense is 20th-best. They allowed Cal to connect on 11 treys Sunday night in exchange for outscoring the Bears 46-18 in the paint (Cal averages 36.7).
Against UConn, Texas will face a pair of All-America forwards, junior Breanna Stewart and senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Shutting down penetration and pushing the Huskies to settle for jumpers will be imperative. UConn is not afraid to shoot—like Cal, the Huskies connected on 11 triples against Rutgers in the Round of 32—but it might be vulnerable inside. Even the eighth-seeded Scarlet Knights only finished with a four-point frontcourt deficit against Geno Auriemma's team.
2. Center of attention
Imani McGee-Stafford, a 6'7" junior center, will be key, as she will be the tallest player on the floor. After averaging 10 points per game this season, she has nearly doubled her production to 19.7 points in her last three games and has double-doubles in her last four outings. Still, she knows that doesn't guarantee a similar performance her next time out.
"Yesterday’s yesterday and tomorrow is going to be tomorrow—I don’t think I can carry anything over except for confidence,” McGee-Stafford told reporters before playing Cal.
McGee-Stafford’s impact is deeper than her stats suggest. In addition to her scoring, her post presence does wonders for Texas’ spacing. She’s seen double and triple coverage this season, freeing up her teammates.
"It’s uplifting. it just helps us as a team, collectively, to know that Imani has us on the boards and has our back,” junior guard Empress Davenport said.
3. Get help
The trust and chemistry Davenport spoke of will make or break the Longhorns’ offense and defense. McGee-Stafford’s maturation into a less foul-prone player has helped keep her on the floor longer. When the Horns throw her and 6’5” sophomore center Kelsey Lang in the paint together, they can clog the lane and force turnovers. Against Cal, Texas capitalized for nine steals.
Those steals energized guards like Davenport and Brooke McCarty. McCarty, a 5'4" freshman guard, scored seven points in the last 49 seconds against the Bears to secure the victory. On one play, Aston later said, the coaches drew up a drive and handoff to McGee-Stafford or Lang. But McCarty deviated from the plan and finished in the lane.
"That play was one of the biggest of the game,” Aston said.
In November, Texas would have welcomed a matchup with UConn. The Longhorns topped Stanford on Nov. 20 in overtime just three days after the Cardinal handed the Huskies their only loss in their last 81 games. Texas was 3-0 and headed for a 13-0 start, but it then lost eight of its next 10 games before recovering to win nine of 11 heading into the Sweet 16.
The Longhorns are 28 1/2 point underdogs to UConn, but their upward swing suggests a closer game than many predict.
Saturday, the Horns are going huntin'.