After suffering another early-season defeat, the faces of the Texas basketball team reflected a mix of dejection and hope.
There was no joy in losing 76-67 to No. 3 South Carolina Thursday night at the Erwin Center. The crowd of 3,300 — and a national TV audience — witnessed a Longhorn team that has made steady improvement since losing to No. 11 Stanford and No. 10 Mississippi State in November.
Improvement, though, has not translated into victories.
“It’s too early to beat yourself up,” coach Karen Aston said. “Too early to be discouraged.”
South Carolina forward A’Ja Wilson scored a career-high 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and the Gamecocks fought off several Longhorn rallies in the second half.
Wilson, a 6-5 junior, took over when USC’s leading scorer and rebounder, center Alaina Coates, got into early foul trouble. Whenever the Gamecocks needed a bucket, they fed the ball to Wilson , who went above and around the Texas defenders, hitting 12 of her 18 shots.
Coates, meanwhile, took a back seat, contributing just six points — all on free throws.
South Carolina (6-0) bought real estate at the foul line, connecting on 30 of 40 free throws. The 14th-ranked Longhorns, by comparison, hit seven of their 14 shots from the charity stripe in the Big 12-Southeastern Conference Challenge.
Instead of griping about officials who charged Texas with 29 fouls, Aston said her players could have helped themselves by “boxing out” better and “moving their feet” to get better defensive position.
Aston, though, was pleased that her team won the battle of the boards 40-37. She singled out senior Kelsey Lang, who led the Longhorns in points (15) and rebounds (12) despite playing much of the game with foul trouble.
“That’s what we need from Kelsey Lang,” Aston said. “She stepped up to the plate and played.”
Despite trailing for most of the night, Texas (2-3) never quit, cutting USC’s lead to 62-59 when guard Lashann Higgs hit a pair of free throws with 6:08 to play. The Gamecocks, though, closed the game on a 16-8 scoring run to pull away.
As for South Carolina, coach Dawn Staley said her team’s defense on Brooke McCarty, UT’s leading scorer, proved pivotal. McCarty, hounded all night by Gamecock defenders, finished with 7 points on 3-for-9 shooting from the field.
“We made her more of a game manager and facilitator, which helped us,” Staley said.
Lang gave credit to Wilson, saying she’s a “hard matchup” because of her size and quickness. She added she was “not surprised” she filled in admirably for Coates, who entered the game averaging a team-high 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Aston said the team continues to show improvement, but added, “I don’t feel any better about losing.”
This marked the third game Texas has faced a highly-ranked team. The Longhorns, who had lost to No. 11 Stanford and No. 10 Mississippi State on the road, hoped that home cookin’ would help them rejuvenate their season.
Texas will hit the road for a game against No. 2 UConn Sunday afternoon in Uncasville, Conn.
NOTES: Jada Underwood, a freshman forward, missed the game because she is under concussion protocol for an injury she suffered in practice last week. Underwood averages 5.8 points in 12.3 minutes a game.