March 19, 2015

(AP) - Texas was forced to find its way after senior forward Nneka Enemkpali went down in January with a torn ligament in her left knee and was lost for the season.

With sophomore forward Nekia Jones also sidelined since her own left knee injury in February, this Longhorns team is much different from the squad that stunned Stanford 87-81 in overtime at Maples Pavilion in November just three days after the Cardinal beat No. 1 Connecticut.

The fifth-seeded Longhorns (22-10) had a great start to the season, winning their first 13 games, and they've withstood a lot of injuries as they get set to take on No. 12 seed Western Kentucky (30-4) in the Albany Regional at Berkeley, California, on Friday.

''We had to figure out how to fill that void,'' coach Karen Aston said. ''It took some time. It was an emotional blow for our team, not only a physical blow to see how we could produce what Nneka was producing. Once we decided, she's not coming back, we need to move forward, it became a collective effort.''

It certainly helped to get 6-foot-7 Imani McGee-Stafford back in a flow during the Big 12 Conference season after she missed the first eight games with a left leg injury.

McGee-Stafford led the way with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks as Texas lost 75-64 to Baylor in the conference tournament title game.

''I just want to say how proud of our basketball team I am. It was a long few weeks for us,'' Aston said. ''I felt like we really needed to show a sense of urgency within our team down the stretch. ... I think that our team did that.''

The Lady Toppers, who won the Conference USA tournament after taking the Sun Belt title last season, are led by senior forward Chastity Gooch. The conference player of the year averages 17.0 points and 6.9 rebounds.

These programs are very familiar with each other. They played for six straight seasons from 1985-90 but not since, and they'll face off for the third time in tournament play. The Lady Toppers are the Longhorns' second-most common NCAA opponent behind six meetings with Louisiana Tech.

"Texas has an amazing program and I think it is an amazing opportunity for both programs because there is a lot of history, and a lot of wins for the women's game in general between the two schools," coach Michelle Clark-Heard said Thursday.

"It's going to be awesome for us and our players understand and know the history. ... We've had a lot of good games against Texas but this is a new time. We are excited about the opportunity to play against some great competition and an unbelievable coach tomorrow."

Before the season even began, one of the Lady Toppers' main goals was to win an NCAA game - and a victory would be the program's first in the tournament in 15 years.

"This is what you work for all year, and we're looking forward for an opportunity to compete," Clark-Heard said.

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