Even though Texas traveled over 1,000 miles to face No. 17 Tennessee, the Longhorns looked right at home — almost.
The sea of orange in the stands at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville and the big T’s on fans’ hats paralleled game scenes in Austin. But the shade of orange wasn’t quite the same, and fans flashing the “Horns Down” gesture indicated that Texas was the enemy.
Neither the hostile environment nor their 4–4 start mattered for the Longhorns, though, who defeated the Lady Vols 66-60 Sunday afternoon. Head coach Karen Aston’s squad fought until the end, reinforcing the argument that Texas — not Tennessee — is the “real UT.”
“It’s very significant,” Aston told KXAN news after the game. “Our team has struggled — everybody knows that — and I think for them to come in here in someone else’s house with this kind of crowd and (Tennessee) being undefeated … I thought our effort and connection was tremendous.”
In most games this season, it’s been senior forward Joyner Holmes’ and sophomore center Charli Collier’s show. But foul trouble and a tweaked ankle Holmes sustained in Saturday’s practice allowed senior point guards Sug Sutton and Lashann Higgs to begin their rise.
Sutton wasn’t herself earlier this season because a stress fracture in her foot kept her out of summer and fall practice. But Sutton seemed to get her rhythm back Sunday, starring in a game where she played 38 minutes and scored a season-high 19 points from the paint and the perimeter.
“(I’m) just trying to build my confidence back and get into my flow, so the past few games have been rough for us,” Sutton said. “ I think everything just worked out for itself today and showed that we’ve been working really hard to try to get a really good win under our belt.”
Higgs, who is returning to form after a season-ending ACL injury last year, shined in the second quarter. One moment Higgs was floating up a jumper. The next moment, she was powering through defenders for a layup. Then after a few more scoring plays, she accumulated her first 14 points of the game.
“I … think (Higgs’ and Suttons’) ability to stay locked into the game plan and think a little bit for others is what we need from them,” Aston said. “It helped because we had a couple of other players — young ones — that maybe struggled with some decision-making.”
By the end of the second quarter, the Longhorns led the Lady Vols 42-36. But Texas had to hang on when Tennessee reclaimed the lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“It’s happened to us a lot these past few games before we played Tennessee,” Sutton said. “ So just … telling each other, ‘We have to stay poised and it’s happened to us before, but let’s come out and punch back and respond to the runs that they gave us in the third quarter’… helped us a lot.”
The Lady Vols proved a challenge for the struggling Longhorns. Tennessee’s players average 6-foot-2 in height, boasting depth and physicality. Shouts of “Air ball!” and other chants throughout The Summit made the matchup even tougher. But the Longhorns fought hard in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to return to Austin with a much-needed win.
“I’ve just been preaching to them to stay with the process and get better and better every day,” Aston said. “And I think they’re trying to do that, and this was a reward for that.”