- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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A year ago at this time, Texas' women's basketball team was still in transition mode. And it wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs for anyone involved.
Coach Karen Aston and her staff were establishing a new regime last season after Gail Goestenkors' departure, and the "buy-in" wasn't 100 percent from the Longhorn players, which is not uncommon; coaches taking over programs deal with this a lot., even when they have history at the school, as Aston did as a former Texas assistant.
The Longhorns started Big 12 play 0-7 and finished it 5-13. A last-second loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament was the final blow in a 12-18 season of woe.
We mention all this because it helps put in perspective Texas' current 6-4 mark in the Big 12, which has the Longhorns in fourth place in the league. Texas is 15-7 overall, and appears poised to return to where the program is used to being: in the NCAA tournament.
On Wednesday, the Longhorns clobbered Texas Tech, the league's last-place team, 88-51. Texas Tech is experiencing something similar to what Texas dealt with last year: a new coach (Candi Whitaker) who has a history with the program (she's a former Tech player) but is having to carve a new path through what probably feels like granite right now.
While Tech struggles through an unending Big 12 gauntlet, the Longhorns are very glad to have a much different mindset this season.
"I think they look more comfortable with each other," Aston said recently about her players. "We've had some situations where we've had injuries, and people coming in and out of the lineup. The rotations are getting more solid, and they're more comfortable with what their roles are.
"And I definitely think they're beginning to establish some leadership. The seniors know that it's time; they want to leave their mark. You can tell that their focus has gotten better in practice, and their purpose, too."
Just more than halfway through Big 12 play, the Longhorns have shown that at their best, they can be quite a handful. They have depth, size, speed and players who can score from all over the court.
Their two leading scorers -- junior Nneka Enemkpali (13.1 ppg) and senior Chassidy Fussell (10.1 ppg) -- both use words such as "trust" and "maturity" to describe what's different this season with Texas.
Fussell, who can be almost surprisingly blunt, said, "We don't really get frustrated with each other like we used to."
At one of Texas' lower points last season, both Enemkpali and Fussell were left home when the Longhorns traveled to Kansas in late January. They'd been suspended one game for an undisclosed violation of team rules, and Aston talked then about the need to "teach some life lessons." Texas scored just 38 points that night in a dismal loss to the Jayhawks.
When Texas visited Kansas this January, it was a very different story: The Longhorns won 80-55. After the game, Aston pointed out it was somehow fitting that Fussell and Enemkpali had led the way for the Longhorns.
Aston knows Fussell really wants to put a good ending on her Texas career after having had such a rough junior year. Earlier this season, though, there was some fear that might not happen.
Fussell suffered a twisted knee in an 87-58 victory over Idaho on Dec. 28, Texas' last nonconference game. Initially, there was concern the injury could be quite serious.
"I was very scared," Fussell said. "I was just praying and hoping it wasn't anything too bad. And luckily, it wasn't."
There was no structural or ligament damage. Still, it was enough to keep Fussell out the next four games as the Longhorns started conference play. They went 2-2 in those games, with one of the losses in overtime at West Virginia.
Fussell returned in a victory over visiting Kansas on Jan. 15. But then the Longhorns fell at TCU four days later in a game that Enemkpali called "an eye-opener."
Texas followed that, though, with an upset victory in a rematch with West Virginia, then the Longhorns beat Kansas for a second time. Fussell said Texas felt good about its chances against Baylor, but the Longhorns came away with an 87-73 loss in Waco on Feb. 1.
Whatever frustrations Texas had after that were taken out on Texas Tech on Wednesday. And now, the Longhorns -- who host Iowa State on Sunday -- enter the stretch run of the season, trying to secure their NCAA tournament hopes.
Enemkpali, who leads Texas in rebounding at 9.4 per game, combines with 6-foot-7 sophomore Imani McGee-Stafford and 6-5 freshman Kelsey Lang to lead the Longhorns' interior attack.
Among the guards, Fussell, Brady Sanders, Empress Davenport, Celina Rodrigo, and Krystle Henderson all have made contributions both as starters and coming off the bench. None of the Longhorns are averaging more than 26 minutes a game.
"At every position, you've got people competing for playing time," Aston said. "I like to play a lot of people. And they know they are going to get a chance to play. It's made for competitive practices."
Texas Tech saw the Longhorns at their best Wednesday -- they shot a season-high 62.1 percent from the field -- and Whitaker talked about what makes Texas so imposing.
"They were making a lot of shots from the perimeter," Whitaker said. "They've got some great players and some big-time size inside. We wanted to try to protect the best we could from inside out, but they were scoring inside, outside, really everywhere. They have a great team, and I think they have a chance to beat a lot of people."
Chance is the key word; so far Texas is still seeking consistency with all the weapons it has. Especially on the road, where the Longhorns have only one of their six Big 12 victories thus far.
But opportunity is what the Longhorns relish after not having much of that a year ago.
"It's a whole different feeling," Fussell said. "We trust our coaching staff -- that they know what they are talking about and want the best for us."
Looks as if some lessons definitely have been learned.
13dBonnie D. Ford