By Wendell Barnhouse
DALLAS - Picked by the coaches to win the regular-season title, Texas rode a rollercoaster that eventually left them with a .500 Big 12 record and a No. 6 seed in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Women’s Championship.
Monday, for the first time since 2004, the Longhorns will play for title. Ironically, they’ll face Baylor – the first time the schools have ever met in the event. The Lady Bears were picked to finish second in the preseason but won their fifth consecutive regular-season championship.
Texas (22-9) out-toughed No. 2 seed Oklahoma in Sunday’s semifinal at the American Airlines Center. The Longhorns’ defense limited the Sooners to just four points over the last 10:22 of the first half and used a 21-3 second-half run to post a 59-46 victory.
“Well, the journey has been tough, but we overcame the adversity that was put upon us, and I think that's what it's all about,” the Longhorns’ Brianna Taylor said. “Basketball is a game of up and downs and it's how you handle it, so I think that we're handling it pretty well now. We're starting to become more of ourselves and we're getting back to playing defense so everything is working out well.”
Texas, which started the season 13-0 and was ranked No. 3 in the nation, has won seven of its last eight. That was preceded by a four-game losing streak. Just less than two months ago, UT lost senior forward Nneka Enemkpali to a season-ending knee injury.
“We've settled on a group of people that they can figure out what their roles are,” Texas coach Karen Aston said. “The leadership's gotten better and I thought we had balanced off a little bit a couple weeks ago and gotten off the roller coaster.”
Texas used a relentless defensive effort to knock off the Sooners (20-11). After taking a 16-9 lead with 10:22 left in the first half, OU managed just four points the rest of the way. Three of those came on a buzzer-beating shot by point guard Gabbi Ortiz just before the break.
Oklahoma again jumped to a lead in the second half and was up 34-30 with 10:35 remaining following a 3-pointer by Gioya Carter. But the Longhorns went on a 21-3 run capped by two 3-pointers by reserve guard Krystle Henderson. OU committed six turnovers and missed five shots as UT took control.
“We went on a long stretch in the first half where we didn’t score any baskets... and in the second half it repeated itself and they found an area where they could stick their foot down on us,” said junior forward Kaylon Williams.
Texas made 57.9 percent of its shots in the second half and finished with a 32-3 edge in bench scoring. The Sooners shot 25.9 percent for the game and were just 7-of-26 from 3-point range. Leading scorer Peyton Little made her first three but then missed her next nine.
“I thought we played bad basketball for 40 minutes,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “It was just bad basketball. We didn't execute, we go 15 of 58 from the field … you've got to score points to win basketball games, you've got to put the ball in the basket.”