Karen Aston was in the arena in April when Notre Dame won the national championship on a last-second shot that might have been the greatest hour for women’s basketball.
Notre Dame had upended unbeatable UConn in overtime in a sensational Final Four semifinal. That was just the appetizer for the Fighting Irish, who needed a three-point buzzer-beater from second-team All-American Arike Ogunbowale to beat Mississippi State in the finals.
Aston watched as Notre Dame’s green-and-gold-clad players and coach Muffet McGraw climbed a ladder and cut down the net in Columbus, Ohio. Confetti fell from the rafters as college basketball celebrated a new champion.
Someday, perhaps sooner than later, the rest of the country might watch Aston and her Texas team celebrate a national title. That has been the coach’s goal from the moment she was hired seven years ago.
Texas will reach the starting line on a brand new 30-game regular season when the Longhorns play host to Duquesne Thursday night at the Erwin Center. With two valued pieces missing from the lineup with injury — junior forward Joyner Holmes (ankle surgery) and freshman center Sedona Prince (broken leg) — the Longhorns will be a “work in progress” until they return.
Aston has reason to be excited. The team has more quality depth, particularly at guard, than in previous seasons. The Longhorns have an established point guard in Sug Sutton, the team’s vocal leader. And Thursday marks the collegiate debut of 6-5 freshman Charli Collier, who was ranked as the No. 1 high school forward recruit in the country.
“When you’re highly touted, you have a certain confidence about you, and Charli is pretty confident,” said Aston, adding that Collier is being tutored by new assistant coach Tiffany Jackson, an All-American forward when she starred for the Longhorns from 2003-07.
This year’s Final Four will be in Tampa. Aston has explained to her team the importance of home-court advantage in the playoffs and how teams are seeded. Other than that, the coaches say very little about post-season opportunities. Aston said it “might be overwhelming” for players to hear stories about March now rather than concern themselves with Duquesne.
“We have to stay in the moment right now,” Aston said.
While Collier seemingly is bound for greatness, fans will see a heavy dose of another newcomer. Texas A&M graduate transfer Danni Williams set a single-season school record with 71 three-pointers for the Aggies last season while leading the SEC with 35.5 minutes played per game. She has spent the last six months getting accustomed to new coaches and teammates.
“I like the way our team is willing to work hard and lay it on the line,” Williams said. “We have a lot of new faces on the team, so it’s going to take time for everyone — including myself — to adjust to each other.”
With Holmes and Prince in rehab, Texas might have to alter its basic attack. Instead of having three players in the frontcourt — Holmes, Collier and senior Jatarie White — the Longhorns might switch to a three-guard backcourt of Sutton, Williams and senior Lashann Higgs.
Texas has not put a timetable for when Joyner and Prince will be back. Aston said she believes Joyner will be back at some point during the year, and it’s not known whether Prince will play or use the year as a redshirt season.
Sutton, who replaces fan favorite Brooke McCarty in the starting lineup, said the team is “struggling with defensive chemistry” during practice. If the Longhorns need fuel for their competitive fire, they can remember falling short of their NCAA Tournament goals the past few years.
“I just remember losing in the Sweet 16 (last March) for the second time in a row,” she said. “For us juniors — myself, Joyner and Jada (Underwood) — was our second time losing in the Sweet 16, and we didn’t take that well. For the whole offseason we’ve been in the gym, getting our shots up or playing pick-up.”
Texas has reached the Sweet 16 round four straight years but advanced to the Elite Eight just once (2015-16) over that span.
Aston said Texas will need a group effort to have success. She said it is a “Texas trademark” to share the basketball and get everyone involved. The Longhorns have not had a player average 20 points in a season since sharpshooter Danielle Viglione put up 21 points a game in 1994.
When the coach said the team is a work in progress, she adds that the Longhorns will look vastly different in March than they will in November. It all depends on when — or if — their injured players return.
“We’re going to have to reinvent ourselves two of three times during the year,” she said.
Duquesne at No. 11 Texas, 7 p.m., LHN, 105.3