That wasn’t hurt you saw on the faces of Karen Aston and her Texas women’s basketball players Monday night after the Longhorns let Baylor off the hook.
It was anger. Bordering on rage.
That’s a good thing, by the way.
Channeled in the right way, a passion to win can move mountains. Don’t get me wrong. Aston wasn’t happy that eighth-ranked Texas let a double-digit lead slip away in the second half, but she wasn’t unhappy with her team for one simple reason: Despite two straight losses, she knows the Longhorns aren’t going away.
They haven’t arrived yet, but the college basketball universe and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey have gotten the message. Texas is on an upward arc.
“We’ve grown,” Aston said.
Gone is the meek bunch that was part of a 14-game losing streak against the Lady Bears, including a pair of losses by a combined 42 points last season. Most important is that any fear of Baylor is now in the rear view. In its place are raised expectations for Texas that coincided with an eye-opening winning streak and a national contender re-emergence for the first time since Jody Conradt’s tenure.
The Horns are 21-6 overall and 14-2 in league play. That would be enough to take most leagues, but Texas happens to be in the same conference as a perennial national title contender. To their credit, the Horns didn’t back down against Baylor in either meeting, leading for seven of eight combined quarters. Last season, they played the Bears three times and trailed for each of the 12 quarters.
The belief is evident. The only disappointment came in knowing they let a chance win a conference title at home get away with a poor second half.
It’s what makes these final two regular-season games — Friday against Iowa State and Monday at Kansas State — an interesting study. This is a pre-postseason gut check for Aston’s crew.
The 2017 season has been played in three acts so far. Act I was a 2-4 start to the season that surprised many of us who thought the Horns would roar out of the gates after going 31-5 last year. Instead we got early struggles and a predictable blowout 92-74 loss at all-everything UConn.
Act II was more to the fan base’s liking — 19 straight wins, including a pair of road thrillers over top-five teams Baylor and Florida State. During the streak, Brooke McCarty became the hottest shooter in college basketball while Ariel Atkins, Joyner Holmes and Kelsey Lang provided the subsequent athleticism and muscle to push Texas past Baylor and into first place in the Big 12.
Then Texas hit a snag.
Which brings us to Act III and those angry faces:
Oklahoma hit a late three to sink the Longhorns last Saturday, then Baylor escaped the Erwin Center with a win. Now the Bears need just one more to clinch at least a tie for the Big 12 title.
Mulkey took some thinly-veiled shots at the Texas program before she boarded the bus to Waco.
The Texas contingent noticed. A pair of nationally-ranked losses by a combined four points can do that to a team.
“I do not take satisfaction in losing at all, but our team is better,” Atkins said. “I think the most important thing for me right now to think (about) is how much we have matured as a team. That’s my focal point right now.”
When asked about missing a pair of open three-pointers down the stretch, McCarty spoke through gritted teeth: “I will make them (the next time),” she said. “I will make them.”
Again, the anger is a good thing. Texas has the potential to go special places over the next month, and those expectations have raised the level of frustration when you lose to a team you now believe you can beat.
The frustration of losing to Baylor was exacerbated by the loss of Lang to an eye injury. The center — who eats up space defensively while providing dependable mid-range shooting near the free line — is listed as probable for Friday, the senior’s final regular-season home game. Perhaps we’ll see her in protective goggles in a game that has become more about national seeding than a conference title.
Aston said she didn’t like her team’s energy in Norman, but after watching them dominate Baylor for the first 24 minutes, those concerns were laid to rest.
“I’m good,” Aston said.
So is her team.
Baylor will win the league, but the Big 12 is no longer a slam dunk in Waco. Austin is back in play.
That is, if the Horns can pass this gut check and show that their time is now.