Texas coach Karen Aston, her team stacked with backcourt talent, has favored a three-guard offense the entire season. Occasionally, though, the Longhorns have scattered the court with four guards.
Such might be the case again Saturday when eighth-ranked Texas takes on Maine, a team whose tallest starter is a mere 6 feet 1.
Texas, seeded No. 2, figures to have a big edge in the paint in the first-round NCAA Tournament game because Maine doesn’t have the size to match up favorably against 6-4 Jatarie White and 6-3 Joyner Holmes. Look for the Longhorns (26-6) to use a variation of tall and short lineups.
“I would agree that we potentially have an advantage in the paint,” Aston said Friday. “What we have to be careful of is that we are are a free-flowing team when we’re good. Even though we have an advantage, I think we need to be careful about thinking we’re just going to pound the ball inside.”
While Texas has an obvious size advantage under the basket, frontcourt depth continues to be an issue. Forward Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau could miss the entire tournament after having wrist surgery, and freshman forward Rellah Boothe has been dropped from the roster for what the school described as “personal reasons.”
Texas has one of the best trios of guards in the nation with seniors Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins and junior Lashann Higgs. A possible X-factor moving forward is sophomore Sug Sutton, who figures to replace McCarty as the team’s starting point guard next year.
Sutton is more than a role player. She averages 23 minutes a game — which ranks fourth on the team — and contributes 6.7 points a game. If Texas goes with four guards, Atkins would take over one of the forward slots.
“Playing Ariel at forward is a mismatch” for opponents, Aston said. “We have to match up defensively to be able to do that. … There are not that many teams we can do that with, but there are a few.”
Maine (23-9) comes to Austin riding a six-game winning streak. The Black Bears are led by 6-1 sophomore forward Blanca Millan and 5-10 junior guard Tanesha Sutton. Millan averages 17.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while Sutton chips in 12.0 and 7.1.
Maine took its lumps early in the season by playing a tough nonconference schedule that included No. 10 Ohio State, No. 4 Mississippi State and No. 20 Duke.
“We want to make (Texas) take the shots they’re not comfortable taking,” Maine coach Amy Vachon said. “We understand they’re bigger than us. We’re not going to go down and post (Sutton) up against their big kids. But we’ll try to do some things that are different.”
Maine’s strength is a defense that ranks 18th in the country, allowing a mere 55.8 points a game. Look for Texas, which averages 80.7 points a game, to run an up-tempo offense.
The Texas-Maine winner will meet the winner of Saturday’s early game between Arizona State and Nebraska. That second-round game will be on Monday.
Win or lose, McCarty and Atkins are playing in front of the home crowd for the final time this weekend. Although both have decorated college careers, both feel there is still more they can do.
“I think we came here and have given Texas everything we have, although we still have more to go,” Atkins said. “We’re just thankful to be part of this program. At this point it’s just fighting for another day.”
Austin’s first, second rounds
Saturday and Monday, Erwin Center, ESPN2
Saturday’s first round: Arizona State vs. Nebraska, 2:30 p.m.; Texas vs. Maine, 5 p.m. (105.3)
Monday’s second round: Saturday’s winners, time/TV TBA
The Austin Four
A look at the four teams playing the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in Austin:
Texas (26-6): Seeded second, the Longhorns are on a run of five straight 20-win seasons and have made three straight Sweet 16s. Two all-conference guards (Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins) lead the way, combining to score nearly 30 points a game. Texas is 3-5 vs. ranked NCAA Tournament teams, with wins over No. 11 Florida State, No. 18 Georgia and No. 24 LSU and losses to No. 1 UConn, No. 2 Baylor (three times) and No. 12 Tennessee.
Arizona State (21-12): Seeded seventh, the Sun Devils have made five straight NCAA Tournaments. They fell to Stanford in the Pac-12 semifinals. ASU has struggled against the top teams, going 2-9 against Top 25 teams, including an 0-6 mark vs. ranked teams in the Pac-12. It’s been an erratic season; there was a six-game winning streak in December and January, followed by four losses in five games after that.
Nebraska (21-10): Seeded 10th, the Huskers really turned things around from 2017, when they went 7-22. The head coach, Amy Williams, is a Husker herself; she played at Nebraska in the late 1990s. If anything, the Huskers should feel comfortable in Austin — they’re 11-4 in games away from Pinnacle Bank Arena this season. They have had only three games against Top 25 teams, all in conference; Nebraska is 0-3 in those matchups.
Maine (23-9): Seeded 15th, the America East champions are led by a pair of guards who combine for 30 points and 12 rebounds a game (Blanca Millan, Tanesha Sutton). Maine went 3-0 in neutral site games — but also 0-3 against ranked teams, and only one of those was relatively close; there was a seven-point loss at No. 10 Ohio State but also a 40-point loss at No. 4 Mississippi State and a 30-point loss at No. 20 Duke. The last two postseasons have been first-round NIT losses. Maine ranks 163rd nationally in scoring and 103rd in field-goal percentage, and it averages 70 percent on free throws, 179th in the country.