(AP) – Texas was a bit of a surprise to reach the Sweet 16 last season. This year the Longhorns expect nothing less and hope for a whole lot more.
The fourth season in coach Karen Aston’s rebuilding project saw Texas cruise through most of the regular season – three tough losses to Big 12 rival Baylor notwithstanding – as the program continues its march back to be among the nation’s elite.
And with that comes the expectation of postseason success, starting Saturday night when the No. 2 seed Longhorns (28-4) play No. 15 Alabama State (19-11) in the first round of the Bridgeport Regional.
Hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Austin was just another of Aston’s long-range goals when she took over the program in 2012.
”We did all this work to play in front of our fans,” Aston said. ”We lost one game this year in the Erwin Center. We want everybody to come out.”
Aston took over after Gail Goestenkors, who had come to Austin after 15 very successful years at Duke, abruptly resigned with two years left on a seven-year contract. Aston’s first season in the rebuilding project was a complete teardown, and the Longhorns finished 12-18. They’ve had at least 22 wins each of the last three seasons.
Texas started 16-0 this season and if not for the trouble with Baylor could have made a case for a No. 1 seed. And for a handful of Texas seniors, their rebuilding project ends with this tournament.
”When I first came, my goal was to get the program back where it needed to be,” guard Empress Davenport said. ”The seniors take pride in putting in the hard work to get the program back to where it needs to be.”
The Longhorns enter the tournament with their highest seed since 2004, when they were a No. 1. The program has made the tournament nine times since then but made it out of the first two rounds once. The last time Texas hosted was in 2010, when the Longhorns were upset in the first round.
Alabama State is making its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament. It was a strong finish after a 2-9 start and the Lady Hornets have no intention of getting swept away in a mismatch.
”It gives us an opportunity to knock off the No. 2 seed in their gym,” coach Freda Freeman-Jackson said. ”We won 15 of the last 17 games. Our girls are confident. They are going go play hard. We’re prepared.”