The start of the 2019-20 season has been a roller coaster ride for Texas women’s basketball, but on Sunday afternoon, the Longhorns upset No. 1 Stanford 69-64 in an emotional home game that could reset the trajectory of their season.
Although Texas entered the season with a No. 15 ranking, the team struggled early on. When head coach Karen Aston, seniors forward Joyner Holmes and point guard Sug Sutton addressed the media after the Longhorns’ 83-58 home loss to Arizona on Nov. 17, the trio looked dejected and confused.
“I’m somewhat surprised and puzzled … at how we’re approaching the start of games and our lack of aggression,” Aston said after the loss to Arizona.
Disillusionment would continue to characterize the Longhorns in subsequent losses to No. 12 North Carolina State and Hawaii. But Texas showed signs of life when it upset a ranked Tennessee team in Knoxville on Dec. 8.
On Sunday against the Cardinal, the odds were stacked against the Longhorns. Texas lacks depth and experience with only eight players in the rotation. Meanwhile, Stanford boasts 10 wins and the best freshman class in the country. The group of freshmen, nicknamed the “Funky Four,” average a combined 32 points per game.
But none of these factors mattered for the Longhorns who went on a 7-0 run to start the matchup.
"I think that our team had a confidence about themselves that we started the game with,” Aston said. “But the thing that I'm most proud of is they're beginning to learn how to play 40 minutes. … Stanford is really, really good. But I told them before the game that I wanted to see that we are still growing and that we learned some things from Tennessee.”
Freshman guard Celeste Taylor starred in the first quarter with two three-point shots and a field goal, while sophomore center Charli Collier and senior guard Jada Underwood helped Texas maintain possession on numerous offensive rebounds.
After a second quarter that saw Collier and Holmes continue their post dominance and Sutton and senior guard Lashann Higgs make scoring plays, the Longhorns led the No. 1 team in the country 35-26 at the end of the second quarter. Texas didn’t trail the entire first half, and for only the second time this season, Stanford was down at halftime.
"I thought Collier really hurt us,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. “Holmes really hurt us with her inside game. We got a real pounding from Underwood. I thought they played very well. They took care of the ball. They got good shots. We missed a lot of shots.”
The Cardinal went on a 6-0 run toward the end of the third quarter and claimed the lead for the first time to end the period. But the drama of the second half reached its peak when Holmes fell after driving to the basket with 9:29 to play in the fourth quarter. Once she hit the ground, silence fell over the Frank Erwin Center, and she immediately grabbed her left knee as her teammates watched on with concern. Holmes, who said she sustained a bad ankle sprain before the Tennessee game, was helped to the locker room.
The Longhorns fought on though. Collier, who secured her eighth career double-double with 20 points and 19 rebounds, held down the fort in the fourth quarter to give Texas back and forth leads.
“They reset themselves when things don't go well,” Aston said. “They're learning to help each other and not depend on the coaches as much. I think that's where we've sort of turned the corner.”
Holmes made her way back to the bench and eventually, back into the game. When Underwood, who went 0-4 from the free throw line Sunday, missed her last attempt, Holmes snagged the rebound and drew a foul giving the Longhorns a 65-60 lead.
“(The potential injury) scared me for a minute,” Holmes told the Longhorn Network after the game. “But I was okay, and I knew I had to come back out and fight for my team. I mean, this is a game we’ve been talking about since the season started, so I just knew.”
Fouls on Taylor late in the fourth converted into points for the Cardinal which climbed to within one point with only 5 seconds to go. Later, free throw attempts from Sutton put the game a bit more out of reach.
Holmes sealed the victory when she intercepted a Stanford pass and drove up the court to make a layup and close the game. Once the clock expired, Texas players stormed the court, and Holmes cried and jumped up and down to celebrate the triumphant moment.
For the first time since 2004, the Longhorns defeated an Associated Press No. 1 ranked team. Texas, now 7-4, has been on a wild ride so far this season. But Sunday, the Longhorns enjoyed the high.
“Winning this game means so much,” Holmes said. “We’re going to have a great Christmas.”