Karen Aston watches her basketball team run drills at Cooley Pavilion and sees a squad that can win the NCAA championship.
If not this season, certainly by the end of the decade.
“This is the best mix of players we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Aston, who’s entering her fourth season as the University of Texas women’s coach. “We’ve talked every season about youth and inexperience, but that will not be used as an excuse this year.”
The season begins Saturday night, when Texas faces UT-San Antonio at the Erwin Center.
Ranked 12th in the Associated Press preseason poll, Texas boasts two of the tallest and most versatile frontcourt players in the country, Imani Boyette and Kelsey Lang. Led by seniors Empress Davenport and Brady Sanders, the Longhorns also have experience in the backcourt, and Lashann Higgs, a multiskilled shooting guard from nearby Cedar Ridge High School, is eager to show everyone what all the fuss is about.
For the 6-foot-7-inch Boyette (formerly McGee-Stafford) and her three senior teammates, this is their final chance to leave their imprint on a group that yearns to be an elite college program again.
“We all have a chip on our shoulders because we want to leave the university with a great legacy,” Boyette said. “We started off (in 2012) as one of the worst teams in University of Texas history. We’d like to finish it being one of the best teams in Texas history.”
Texas returns 11 players from a team that finished 24-11 last season while reaching the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. It was UT’s best finish since the 2003-04 team went 30-5. Those 11 returners represent 83.5 percent of the scoring from a year ago, 81 percent of the rebounding and 87.6 percent of the assists.
“I don’t believe anyone here really knows how good we can be,” said Lang, a 6-5 junior who returns from offseason wrist surgery.
Aston said her latest team will need a month or two to discover its identity. Among the players coming off significant injuries are Sanders, who had surgery to repair a broken right foot; guard Ariel Atkins (ankle surgery); and post Diani Akigbogun (knee).
“There is some sadness to get ready for my last season,” said Sanders, who was cleared to play by doctors Monday. “Texas was my dream school. If everyone can stay healthy, this can be a great season.”
Texas fans will get a glimpse of the future when Higgs walks onto the court for the first time Saturday. After averaging 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game as a senior at Cedar Ridge, she was named the Big 12’s preseason freshman of the year.
“I believe Lashann will be the best freshman in the country,” Davenport said.
Aston said Higgs, daughter of UT assistant coach George Washington, can be described using several adjectives.
“If I had to pick one, I’d say ‘dynamic’ is the best way to describe her game,” the coach said.
Higgs, perhaps the Horns’ quickest player, does a great job of creating her own shots, Aston added. She was the team’s leading scorer with 21 points during a recent scrimmage against the men’s practice team.
Texas vs. UT-San Antonio
7 p.m. Saturday, Erwin Center, LHN, 104.9
Records in 2014-15: Texas, 24-11; UT-San Antonio, 16-15
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