Sug Sutton emerged from a somber Texas locker room with tears in her eyes and hope in her heart.
UCLA had just ended UT’s season with an 84-75 victory in a Sweet 16 game of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Friday night at the Sprint Center. Texas finished a successful season with a 28-7 record but was frustrated it’s goal of reaching the Final Four fell two steps short.
It was the final collegiate game for Texas seniors Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins, who combined for 32 points in defeat. They can be proud of a four-year record of 108-32 wearing burnt orange uniforms.
While McCarty and Atkins will take their games to WNBA and perhaps abroad, Sutton is among a talented group of players who are returning next season. That will include a freshman class that includes McDonald’s All-Americans Charli Collier and Sedona Prince.
No one will have bigger shoes to fill next season than Sutton, McCarty’s replacement at point guard.
“I’m going to step up for Brooke and Ariel, who were great leaders for this team,” Sutton said. “You can’t replace everything they have done for us but I’m going to do everything I can to help this team.”
Coach Karen Aston was in no mood to lay blame for the loss to UCLA. She didn’t have to explain that 21 turnvers were “really uncharacteristic” for this team. In the end, Texas had no answer for UCLA point guard Jordin Canada, an All-America candidate who finished with 22 points after an 0-for-5 shooting performance in the first half.
UCLA outscored Texas 31-13 in points off turnovers.
“As a coach, you sometimes want to blame your kids or try to figure out what went wrong,” Aston said. “But a lot of what went wrong was that UCLA was really exceptional.”
But while Texas painted itself into a corner with senseless turnovers, the Longhorns made a big run in the third quarter. Brooke McCarty capped a 14-3 spurt to open the quarter with a three-point bomb and a driving layup to give the Horns a 45-42 with 7:20 to play.
That’s when Canada and 6-4 forward Monique Billings went to work. The Bruins countered with an 11-0 run of their own to lead 59-49 heading into the fourth quarter.
“We knew Texas would make a run but it was about how we stayed composed (after falling behind),” Canada said.
Atkins would open the fourth quarter with seven points in the first two minutes to slice UCLA’s lead to 62-56, but the Longhorns would get no closer.
Texas junior post Jatarie White, who should join Sutton as team leaders next fall, had a stellar game, finishing with 17 points and a team-high 8 rebounds.
UCLA had a 38-34 edge in rebounding, only the fifth time in 34 games Texas lost the battle of the boards.
In the end, McCarty and Atkins stayed composed, answering every tough question in a packed press conference.
It is only appropriate the two players who helped the Longhorns reach the Sweet 16 in four straight years get the last word.
McCarty: “I’m upset that we went out the way we did this year because I had such high expectations for our team. Everyone here should have high expectations for each other. But I’m very grateful that I came here and I got to wear this Texas uniform. It made me sit back and realize there is something bigger than myself.”
Atkins: “I thank God for opening up a lot of doors for me since I’ve been here and the stage is set for our younger players to take off. When we came here with a mindset that we were going to get Texas back to where it needs to be.”
It will be up to Sug Sutton and her returning teammates to keep the program rising.