Column: Aston takes things one day at a time to another Sweet 16 exit

Drew King

Nobody wanted to get ahead of themselves.

Entering the season, the Longhorns could have been riding high. Junior center Jatarie White was finally available after sitting out all of the 2016-17 season due to the transfer rules. Freshman forward Rellah Boothe and guards Chasity Patterson and Destiny Littleton comprised the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation.

Ranked No. 2, the Longhorns had every reason to think they would be more successful this season after losing to 3-seeded Stanford in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. They also knew better.

“Sky’s the limit (for us),” senior guard Ariel Atkins said before the season. “But it takes a lot to be able to reach your potential. You have to show up every day, and it takes a lot of good things to line up for us to get to where we want to go.”

Atkins’ teammates agreed.

“You’ve got to feel like every team is Final Four caliber,” fellow senior guard Brooke McCarty said shortly after. “I think if we work hard every day and just focus on us, we’ll be good.”

Head coach Karen Aston drilled the day-by-day approach into the team’s identity. She had to. The Longhorns would be without sophomore and previous regular starter Joyner Holmes for the fall semester due to suspension.

Aston didn’t want the team to get overwhelmed by the adjustments they needed to make. Taking things one day at a time would help the transition.

The plan worked, for the most part. Texas started the season 9–1 without Holmes, the only loss coming against No. 11 Tennessee on Dec. 10, 2017. But when Holmes returned on Dec. 23, she and the rest of the team had to adjust again.

Holmes slowly earned a spot back in the rotation and cemented her place with an 11-point, 9-rebound performance against Kansas on Jan. 13.

Despite her talent, working Holmes back into the lineup proved challenging. The Longhorns went 6–3 in their next few games. But they continued working to get better. Following a loss to No. 3 Baylor on Jan. 25, Texas went on a five-game win streak before suffering another setback.

Late in the second quarter against Kansas State on Feb. 10, senior forward Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau fell awkwardly on her wrist going after a loose ball. The play left Caron-Goudreau with a bruise that ultimately kept her sidelined for the rest of the season.

With Caron-Goudreau out, Holmes was moved back into a starting role. It wasn’t easy.

“Starting (is more challenging),” Holmes said. “When you sit, you can see the mistakes that (your teammates) are making and what coach wants you to go in there and do differently. When you start the game, you’ve just got to go in and do what you’ve learned through shootaround and through practice throughout that week.”

Still, Texas figured things out. The team closed the regular season out with a 24–5 record, two games better than a year before. The Longhorns advanced to the Big 12 Championships before losing to Baylor again, a round further than they had in 2017.

Focusing on one day at a time had worked. There was no reason for the team to change mindsets heading into the NCAA Tournament.

“Getting to play here for probably our last time, it’s just a lot of emotions that go into it,” McCarty said. “I’m taking it day by day and going with the process.”

The changes weren’t effective enough. Though Texas advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth-consecutive time, they were upset by UCLA, 84-75, on March 23.

Aston saw enough progress, though. She knows moving on now without Atkins and McCarty will be strenuous. She also knows her team will need to continue taking things day by day to do it.

“There may be in my lifetime as a coach that I have coached more talented players,” Aston said. “But I don’t know that I will coach two better role models, two better leaders, two better gym rats, two better workers than Brooke and Ariel.”