For the Texas women’s basketball team, winning means hitting the weight room and staying focused. It also means being pushed hard in practice.
When the Longhorns aren’t going to war on the hardwood against opponents from around the country, they’re battling in practice against an all-male squad.
Texas’ 19 male practice squad members aren’t necessarily Division I talents. But Nick Bovine, a graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team, said their speed and athleticism prepares the Longhorns for competitive matchups.
“We’re really blessed to have good players that come in and play really hard for us,” Bovine said. “They give us a great look that I think is comparable to what these girls are going to see night in and night out in the Big 12.”
Men across the UT campus can join the squad in numerous ways, but Bovine said he recruited several players this season by going to the Recreational Sports Center and watching guys play pickup basketball. Positive individuals who played hard captured Bovine’s attention.
Brandon Okeke, a biochemistry senior from Houston, has been dominating others on the court at Gregory Gym during his time at UT. When Okeke discovered his friend was on the practice squad, the senior expressed an interest in joining himself, and Bovine eventually reached out.
“Right before this past fall semester started, (Bovine) texted me and said he wanted to come see me play a little bit, just to see if I would be a good fit for the team,” Okeke said. “Immediately (after the tryout), he said if I wanted to play on the team, the spot’s mine.”
Sports management junior Ryan Yablonsky has practiced with the women’s team since December 2018. As a freshman, Yablonsky took a basketball class and eventually became a teaching assistant for the course before the opportunity came to join the squad. The Plano, Texas native hopes to work with Texas Athletics in the future.
“I really want to work for either the men or women’s team postgraduation (and) become a graduate assistant,” Yablonsky said. “My ultimate goal is to coach basketball at a D1 college or even on a professional level.”
After playing basketball in high school, civil engineering sophomore Spencer Johnson joined the practice squad the summer before his freshman year at UT. Hailing from Dripping Springs, Texas, Johnson said the team was a good way to continue playing basketball at a competitive level.
“I’m not good enough to play on the actual UT team, of course,” Johnson said. “But I wanted to be a part of something within UT’s sports teams, and (the practice squad) was the easiest way for me to do it.”
Despite their busy schedules, Bovine said the three men are the squad’s most committed players, voluntarily devoting 15-20 hours of their time during longer weeks. And they do it all for free — their love for basketball and desire to have an impact returns them to the practice facility.
“It’s one thing to just go and play pickup basketball at the gym,” Okeke said. “It’s another thing to be part of something that means a lot more.”
Being on the squad is important to the men who enjoy seeing the intensity they bring to practice help the Longhorns in games. Most people who sign up for the team don’t just do it for fun; they also want to contribute. For this reason, Okeke, Yablonsky and Johnson rarely miss practice.
Their commitment doesn’t go unnoticed. Players on the women’s team appreciate the practice squad’s commitment to the Longhorns’ success.
“Some of them were here during Christmas break, and they weren’t even with their families,” senior point guard Sug Sutton said. “We’re really thankful to have practice guys who are selfless and are willing to help us every day.”
However, it’s not all business. The practice squad members enjoy several perks, though perhaps none bigger than a sense of community.
“One of my favorite things is the relationships we’ve developed,” Johnson said. “All the people within the program I know by name. … It’s a good group of people for sure.”