Longhorns keep focus through recent challenges

Freshman guard Brook McCarthy is one of several new recruits who have exceeded expectations for the Longhorns this season.

Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra

Closing Red River Street south of MLK Jr. Boulevard hasn’t slowed down Texas Longhorn basketball.
The season is in full swing for the women’s basketball team and they have faced their fair share of peaks and valleys.
Third-year head coach Karen Aston helped bring the team back to the forefront on the 40 Acres. Last season she coached the team to its first postseason win since 2008.
The Longhorns entered the season as the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 Conference and opened their campaign ranked No. 9 nationally.
Aston said she thinks the team has a good blend of players for the first time in three years.
“Our team is going to be exciting,” she said. “It’s going to be one of those teams where the word is going to get out that we’re a fun team to watch.”
The quality mixture of players on this year’s roster gives the team tons of potential.
The incoming freshmen class was one of the most talked about in the program’s history.
The coaching staff signed a top freshman recruiting class with forward Diani Akigbogun (Gatorade Colorado Girls Basketball Player of the Year) and guards Ariel Atkins (national high school player of the year), Tasia Forman (a top-25 guard in the class of 2014 by ESPN) and Brooke McCarty (a top 15 overall recruit by ESPN).
“It’s excitingthe potential of this team—and I’m cautious with the ‘potential’ word because that’s what it is right now,” said Aston. “You’re asking [the sophomores] to step forward … and the freshmen not to be freshmen and contribute heavily to our team.”
Outside of the incoming class, Texas brings back experience to this season’s squad led by senior forward Nneka Enemkpali and guard Krystle Henderson. Junior guards Brady Sanders, Empress Davenport and Celina Rodrigo lead the team in assists per game, respectively.
The underclassmen and veterans combined added depth for the team.
This depth was utilized this season when the Longhorn coaching staff called upon sophomore center Kelsey Lang to fill the void of injured junior center Imani McGee-Stafford.
Lang stepped into the role and is the second leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 10.6 points per game and 6.2 boards per game.
Lang said rebounding was one aspect of her game she focused this offseason.
“With Imani out, Nneka [Enemkpali] obviously can rebound, but she can’t do it by herself, so I really focused on that in the offseason,” Lang said. “I just try to go pursue every ball I can.”
The Longhorns started the season without McGee-Stafford and freshman Diani Akigbogun due to injuries, and more players have been injured since.
Enemkpali is out for the remainder of the season after she tore her ACL in an earlier January game. Enemkpali had a streak of seven consecutive double-doubles. She ends her career at Texas as the 37th player in UT Austin history to score 1,000 career points and ninth on the all-time UT Austin rebounding list.
Before her injury, she led the team in points and the conference in total rebounds and rebounds per game.
Despite such high hopes for this season, Enemkpali said earlier this season that the expectations for a team would never change.
“You always want to be playing in April and that’s our goal,” Enemkpali said. “We want to use our preseason to field us through our regular season and Big 12 [Tournament] to get us playing in April.”
The Horns started the season 13-0. This is the first time since the 1986 championship team the Longhorns went undefeated (11-0) with their non-conference regular season schedule, which included wins against three top-five nationally ranked opponents (Stanford, Tennessee and Texas A&M).
But just like Austin traffic, the closer it gets to 5 p.m. the heavier and more difficult the ride becomes.
Near the end of January, the Longhorns have lost four of its last five games. The Longhorns were outscored 143–108 in the second halves of those four losses.
The team must now rely upon each other even more in the face of adversity.
But freshman Ariel Akins said the team’s focus remains the same.
“We are still our team and we still have great coaches and great players,” Atkins said. “Things happen and you have to go through things in order to get to where you want to be. I feel like it gives us more motivation to do what we wanted to do at the beginning of the season. Our goals are still the same and everything that we want to do is still achievable."