LEXINGTON, Ky. — The players gathered in the center of a cramped Rupp Arena locker room Friday night for a final group hug.
The Texas women brought closure to their season with a tribute to themselves. They thanked seniors Brianna Taylor and Kelsey Lang for their leadership. Huddled together, they raised their arms in unison for one more cheer:
Roughly 30 minutes after Stanford had defeated the Longhorns 77-66 in a Sweet 16 game at the NCAA Tournament’s Lexington Regional, the players laughed, smiled. Tears shed while they sang “The Eyes of Texas” with their fans inside the legendary arena after the final buzzer. It was a moment to reflect on another good season. And a time to look ahead to what appears to be a bright future.
Taylor and Lang addressed their teammates before the group hug. A message from the heart. To their credit, the seniors leave a program in much better shape than when they arrived as bright-eyed freshmen in the summer of 2013.
“We told them to remember how they felt about losing tonight,” Taylor said.
“And we said we never want them to have this feeling again,” Lang added.
Texas has re-emerged as a major player in the landscape of women’s basketball. The Longhorns have reached the Sweet 16 three straight years, earning a spot in the Elite Eight last year. The mission for the returning Horns is to break through and reach the Final Four.
But how do they do that?
“If I knew the answer to that, I would tell you, but I’m going to figure it out this summer,” said junior guard Ariel Atkins, who scored a team-high 18 points against Stanford.
Coach Karen Aston has reason to believe the Longhorns will be even better next year. Players such as Big 12 player of the year Brooke McCarty, freshman sensation Joyner Holmes and Atkins will be back. Role players such as sophomore guard Lashann Higgs and freshman guard Alecia Sutton grew up this season and were big contributors in the postseason. And the Longhorns will welcome a pair of McDonald’s All-American’s in the fall, 6-3 forward Rellah Boothe of Ocala, Fla., and 5-5 point guard Chasity Patterson of Houston.
Aston, though, stopped short of saying expectations will be higher next season.
“I don’t think they can be any greater because we expected to go to the Final Four (this year),” Aston said. “That was our goal. And it was a realistic goal. … We expect to be challenging for the Big 12 championship. We expect to be a contender. We expect to win 20 games. It’s always a benchmark to reach 20, and we won 25 games. Last year we won over 30. When you get to 30, you’re really special.”
Aston, a finalist for national coach of the year honors, has assembled a team that has restored pride in Texas basketball. After a rough first season, her last four teams have gone a combined 102-37. Losses are always tougher to absorb for teams that expect to win.
Texas expected to beat Stanford, Lang and Taylor said. Both admitted that Stanford outplayed the Longhorns.
Lang said she is proud to leave when the Longhorns are on the rise.
“When we came here it was tough to change the culture of Texas,” she said. “With all the young girls coming in who are really talented, I hope the players who are returning can get them to buy in. If they can do that, the sky’s the limit.”