Longhorns look to break through
NORFOLK, Va. -- It's not easy showing up to the NCAA tournament looking for redemption. Momentum, yes. Validation, sure. Sometimes even a little revenge.
But redemption? That's a tougher nut to crack in mid-March.
Texas traveled east looking to banish the disappointment of the immediate past and some stuff that goes quite a bit further back.
Nine days ago at the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo., the Longhorns took a 23-point loss to Texas Tech, their worst defeat of the year. Then they sweated out whether they'd even end up in the NCAA bracket.
But here they are, looking for a makeup opportunity as a No. 9 seed, facing No. 8 West Virginia on Saturday morning (ESPN2, 11 a.m. ET) at the Ted Constant Center at Old Dominion.
"We were all off that night," said senior guard Ashleigh Fontenette of the 81-58 loss against Tech in which Texas shot 25.3 percent and turned the ball over 17 times. "We have to look past that. That's not the team we are. That was such a different team from the Oklahoma game or the A&M game [both Texas wins in the past three weeks]. We know which team we can be. That's the team that showed up for those games."
The three Texas seniors -- Fontenette, Ashley Gayle and Yvonne Anderson -- probably didn't imagine it was going to go quite like this when they arrived in Austin as highly rated recruits, coming into a program headed by one of the game's most successful coaches in Gail Goestenkors.
But something just hasn't clicked. Be it chemistry, coaching, injuries, illness or something intangible, the Longhorns have been grasping to fulfill expectations for the length of Goestenkors' tenure.
Four seasons after their arrival, the three seniors are on the verge of their final NCAA tournament still looking for their first victory. That was not the scenario they had envisioned.
Yes, they've played in the NCAA tournament every year, five in a row for the program, but the Longhorns haven't won a first-round game since Goestenkors' first season in 2008, the season before these seniors arrived.
"I think everybody comes into college expecting to do really well and have a lot of success," Gayle said. "When you get there, there's a lot of work to put in. I don't have any regrets, though. I'm really proud of my team."
It has been another roller-coaster season for Texas, which is 18-13, the lowest number of wins in Goestenkors' tenure. A handful of potentially key players, including freshman Cassie Peoples and sophomore guards Tiffany Moore and Cokie Reed, have been limited by injuries, pushing Goestenkors to lean even more on her veterans. Fontenette and Anderson are each averaging 11.9 points a game. Gayle is averaging five points a game and a team-leading 6.6 rebounds.
The Longhorns finished 8-10 in the Big 12 this season, hitting a skid of four straight losses and rallying to win five of seven, including victories over Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas A&M before stumbling badly against Tech in the tournament.
Goestenkors, who left extraordinary success at Duke (four Final Four trips) to come to Austin, has been unable to recapture that at Texas. Her time with the Longhorns has an air of underachievement to it. In the fifth year of a seven-year contract, Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky confirmed Goestenkors will be back next season.
Her senior players, however, are running out of chances. The weight of that is palpable.
"Each opportunity, we felt like we were going to win and it never happened," said Anderson, whose father is Arkansas men's basketball coach Mike Anderson. "We expect so much of ourselves, and we know we've had the talent to win the games that we've lost. But in the end, we have to make it about this year and this team."
Each NCAA loss has become successively more painful. Two years ago, the Horns lost at home to San Diego State. A year ago, it was a 68-65 loss to Marquette in Knoxville.
"I think the last two years, in particular, we have gone against people who have had senior backcourts and our guards have played young," Goenstenkors said. "This is our turn now. We have the senior backcourt. We should be the team that is playing with that poise at this time of the year.
"I think we are set up to play well. But it has been frustrating."
Goestenkors said she challenged her seniors before their three-game win streak leading into the Tech loss. She put Gayle back in the starting lineup after taking her out for a three-game stretch and said she would let her most experienced players lead the way to wherever the team was headed.
Goestenkors will do the same Saturday morning.
"There is a pressure. You are either going to use it or be used by it," Goestenkors said. "You are either going to see us play with a great sense of focus and urgency or allow ourselves to be paralyzed by it. I'm hopeful. I feel good that they are going to allow this to motivate them and use it in the right way."
Fontenette said she is ready.
"We just need to stay calm," Fontenette said. "We've been here before. We have a lot of experience. We just have to relax and have fun."