SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Nobody within the Texas women's basketball program saw it ending this way, but then again, few outside the program saw the Longhorns making it this far.
Sixth-seeded Texas fell to No. 1 seed South Carolina Tuesday night at San Antonio's Alamodome, 62-34, and finished the season with a record of 21-10. Playing in the Elite Eight for the 10th time in program history, the Longhorns were shut out in the fourth quarter and struggled offensively all evening.
Despite the shortcomings Tuesday, Texas head coach Vic Schaefer commended his team for its rapid growth during the Horns' NCAA Tournament run, noting that he has never seen a team grow more in his 36 years of coaching.
"As far as my team goes, I couldn't be more proud of a group of young ladies," Schaefer said. "Currently, after 36 years of coaching, it's the most I've ever seen a team grow and change and get better. Really, the improvement has taken off in the last five weeks. This group has really done some things I didn't think they were going to be able to do."
In a similar start to the team's Sweet Sixteen victory over Maryland, the Horns struggled offensively at the start of the game, and shot just 19 percent in the opening quarter, after which the Longhorns trailed, 18-7. After UT's Audrey Warren tied the score at 2-2 with a driving layup 34 seconds into the game, South Carolina mounted a 12-0 run.
The Longhorns slowly but surely cut into the deficit as the second quarter began, countering South Carolina's 22-9 lead. Texas converted on its next three attempts, as guard Celeste Taylor hit back-to-back shots, the latter trimming the deficit to single digits. A mid-range jumper by Texas guard Kyra Lambert cut the Gamecock lead to seven, 22-15, with 5:57 to go until halftime, as the pro-Texas crowd let out a roar.
The comeback was short-lived, however, as South Carolina capitialized on Texas miscues, and raced out to a 35-19 lead as a frustrated Schaefer called a timeout with 2:18 to play in the period. It seemed that the harder the Longhorns tried, the worse it got, as the Gamecocks continued to work the ball inside, and Texas turned the ball over four times in the final 2:20.
The main storyline surrounded the matchup between the teams' top post players; Texas center/forward Charli Collier and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, and it played a critical role in the first half, with both teams trying to create offensive chances inside for the pair.
While Boston had little trouble with the Texas defense, with eight points, two rebounds and two blocks in the first half, Collier scored just four points, and picked up her third foul 2:10 into the third quarter. The fouls kept her on the bench for five minutes in the first half, and 10 in the second. In what turned out to be her final game in a Texas uniform, Collier failed to get a shot from low post during the first half.
After Warren gave her team a lift with a three-pointer just before the buzzer at the end of the second, the Longhorns came out of the locker room needing a surge. It took some time before they gained traction offensively, but with South Carolina shooting just 1-for-8 to open the third, Texas managed to go on a 9-0 run midway through the quarter, cutting the lead to 41-31.
As much as the Longhorns tried, there was no stopping South Carolina, or overcoming the Gamecocks relentless defense in the second half. In a play that summed up the Longhorns' futile effort, Texas had a chance at a shot just before the buzzer at the end of the third. The ball reached Warren, but Carolina's Laeticia Amihere was in position for a statement block, just as the entire Gamecock defense had been seemingly all evening.
The margin only grew in the fourth quarter, in which Texas shot a miserable 0-for-15 from the field. The Longhorns were shut out in the final period, as well as the final three minutes of the third. As Schaefer noted after the game, it is hard to be competitive when a team fails to score for 13 straight minutes.
"I told [South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley] it seems like every time we play them, their defense is always on point, it rises to the occasion, and they always play extremely hard on that end," Schaefer said. "I thought tonight they were spectacular. It's hard to win, hard to be competitive when you don't score after the three minute mark [remaining in the third quarter]. But it wasn't just that, it wasn't the last 13."
Holding South Carolina to 62 points, 14 below its season average, was encouraging to Schaefer, though the same could not be said about his squad's offensive attack.
Texas shot a mere 23 percent from the field, compared to South Carolina's 44 percent and went just 3-for-15 from three-point range. Only one Longhorn, Warren, scored in double figures, with a team-high 13 points.
Though the loss marked a disappointing end to an encouraging tournament run in Schaefer's first season in Austin, he had nothing but praise for the way his squad took on the challenge of a new culture, a new coaching staff and the Covid-19 protocols throughout the season.
"I can't even get past the pride and the love that I have for these kids and the admiration," Schaefer said, "because you all ... it's a miserable way to live right now in this world with everything we've had to navigate. College is supposed to be the best four years of your life, and [they weren't allowed] to socialize, to go out and eat ... the list goes on. For them to do what they've done ... I'm not sure many kids can do what they did for us at Texas this year."
For Schaefer, this may be the end of the season, but it is just the beginning for what he envisions this program to be in the years to come.
"As we told them in the locker room, this is the standard," Schaefer said. "If I'm doing my job, we're playing on March 30 every year. That's what we do at Texas. We're playing in the NCAA Tournament, [we're] playing deep into the tournament, and hopefully in a few years, we're playing for national championships."