March 29, 2021 

‘Texas fight’: the makings of an upset

How the Longhorns shocked the world, reached the Elite Eight

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SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 28: Texas takes on Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 28, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Texas basketball is not lush. It isn’t an offensive juggernaut. But it’s ready for war. And head coach Vic Schaefer is the tournament’s Trojan Horse.

The Longhorns weren’t even supposed to be in this game, but Schaefer and his elite defensive squads have made it this far before. Really, that’s all they needed. That, and a chip on their shoulder. Schaefer took the opportunity after the game to relish in the win and wax poetic about his team’s underdog status.

“To see them respond right now is really, again, it’s why we do what we do in coaching,” Schaefer told assembled media on a postgame Zoom. “I told them tonight, I think I used the phrase, ‘nobody gives you a snowball’s chance in hell.’ And that’s okay, it’s no problem. I don’t care what people think.”

Maryland came into this game as the heavy favorite to move on to the Elite 8 and looked like the offensive freight train we’ve come to expect in the opening minutes. The Terrapins opened the first quarter on a 13-2 run and threatened to put the contest away early, with Katie Benzan and Ashley Owusu getting buckets early. No offense has looked more in sync than the Terrapins over the past month, as they came into the game averaging over 90 points per game on the season and had score 198 points in the first two rounds of the tournament. None of it mattered in the Sweet 16.

“There were people out there saying they were gonna hang 100 on us, and I think we took that personally,” Texas sophomore guard Celeste Taylor said. “Every last one of us took that personally. So we went out there and said, ‘We need to play defense.’”

Even as the first quarter went Maryland’s way, the final three quarters all favored Texas. The Longhorns relied on their defensive length and controlled the pace of the game, stifling Maryland’s strong six — that is, the six players who average at least 10 points per game — and limiting any chance for the Terrapins to put a run together.

Stopping that offense takes an entire team effort, and the Longhorns almost saw their season slip away with five minutes left when Audrey Warren fell hard to the ground and hit her head on the court. Warren, who has a long history of head injuries, came out of the game as the Longhorns trailed 56-52, forcing Schaefer to expand his rotation back to six players.

Lauren Ebo, Warren’s reserve, deflected a pass free for Kyra Lambert to score in the open court with 30 seconds left and give Texas the final lead of the game.

Texas basketball has saved its best play for March. If you ask previous iterations of this team to pull off the upset, from November to February, they likely couldn’t have done it. But this is March.

How did they get here? The defense finally started clicking.

“Defensive chemistry is the last thing you get on the team,” Schaefer said. “And it doesn’t come without hard work and doing it every day. Defense is nothing more than teaching habits, y’all. And the only way you’re going to create a habit is to do it every day.”

The Longhorns guards have also 180’d, breaking the singular scout that teams held which focused on projected number one pick Charli Collier. Collier did about everything you could ask for her on an off-night — that is, 16 points, 11 rebounds and solid interior defense. But you can’t just scout Collier now. The entire team has been in the trenches to get to this point.

Celeste Taylor is playing the best basketball of her life right now. Even after her shot went cold in January, the rest of her game kept growing, and Schaefer never lost his confidence in her. So when the shots started connecting, Taylor began to gain confidence. Now, she looks like one of the most complete players in the Big 12 — and one of the best guards left in this tournament.

Even in her first NCAA Tournament, she’s met the moment. Taylor finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and four assists on Sunday.

But she’s hardly the only Taylor getting it done. Junior guard Joanne Allen-Taylor is the heart and soul of this team, and for the millionth time this year, she showed why. With three minutes left in the game, Taylor landed hard on her tailbone, looking like a lock to join Warren in the locker room.

But less than a minute later, she checked back in and finished off the game for the Longhorns, drawing raucous cheers from a Texas crowd that made this nearly a home game.

#1 seed South Carolina is up next.

Texas will look for its first Final Four appearance since 2003 against South Carolina, and Schaefer will try to avenge Mississippi State’s loss to South Carolina’s Dawn Staley in the 2017 Championship Game. This matchup gives us the chance to watch the head-to-head spectacle that is Charli Collier vs. Aliyah Boston, which The Next’s Mitchell Northam previewed for us here.

The Longhorns will enter Tuesday’s game as heavy underdogs. It seems that they like it that way.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream & Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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