This has been a disappointing season for fans of the Texas Longhorns. After opening the season ranked in the AP's Top 25, Texas lost to South Florida, then got blown out by Arizona, then lost to North Carolina State. They followed that up by just barely beating North Texas and then losing to Hawaii, at which point the team sat at 4-4 on the season. I wrote a few weeks ago about what was going wrong for Texas, but the easy answer was "pretty much everything."
So, I'm sure most people weren't expecting much on Sunday when Texas faced a then No. 17 Tennessee team. The Lady Vols are one of the most historically successful teams in women's basketball, but they haven't been to the Final Four since 2008 and haven't advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2016. That said, 2019 is looking like the best Tennessee squad we've seen in awhile, and this game was in Knoxville, so...
But the Longhorns prevailed, coming away with the 66-60 victory. So, how did it happen? What did Texas do in this one that allowed them to hand the Lady Vols their first loss of the season? Let's take a trip back in time to Sunday and talk about the various things I was seeing in this game. (Note: If you want to also watch this game and have an ESPN+ account, you can find it here. Because I'm unable to provide video clips from ESPN+ games, opening the replay can help you visualize the various moments that I'm writing about.
The Statistical Stuff
Here are some things you can glean from a quick glance at the box score of this game:
- Sug Sutton and Lashann Higgs each had 19 points to lead the way for the Longhorns. Higgs finished with 1.27 points per possession, while Jada Underwood had 13 points and a team-high 1.44 points per possession.
- Joyner Holmes didn't do much on the offensive end, finishing with just four points and an assist, but she blocked three shots.
- Only one Tennessee player wasn't held to sub-40 percent shooting.
- Texas won this game despite losing the rebounding battle 48-36.
Basically, the box score shows us that Texas clamped down on the Lady Vols defensively and got some strong offensive production from their guards, even as the inside game didn't really materialize for them.
Sutton's 17 shot attempts were her most of the season and only her second game with double-digit shot attempts. Last year's team-leading scorer is currently third on the team in scoring this year, so getting a big night out of her is one of those variables that really changes the list of potential outcomes for the Horns.
What Happened in the Game
Let's talk about some of my observations from this game and see if we can extrapolate some longterm meaning from them for a Texas team that's still got plenty of time to turn a disappointing season around.
One thing that was apparent right from the start here was that the Longhorns knew Tennessee wanted to work the ball inside. This is the tallest Lady Vols team in program history and they thrive on their inside game, and from the very first play of the game, Charli Collier was in there in the post sticking right to the Tennessee bigs. On the first Lady Vols possession, Collier's positioning in the post made it impossible for the Lady Vols to get the ball where they wanted to, which helped Joyner Holmes jump the passing lane and get the steal.
Another key early factor was Sutton. She drove to the basket. She got good looks from the mid-range. She set up on the perimeter and drained a corner three on her way to scoring the first seven points for the Longhorns. Texas made it a point to say "oh, Tennessee has a lot of size? Let's play through Sutton early on" as a way of not letting Tennessee dominate the style of play. Something I like about this Texas team is that they have the personnel to play a few different ways offensively — they can go heavy on the paint with Collier and Holmes, or they let Sutton and Higgs be the spark plugs offensively. That versatility is important for a team that needs to figure out how to win games before the Big 12 season arrives. As rough as things have been, this is a conference that's still wide open beyond Baylor, with the Lady Bears being one of just two Big 12 schools (West Virginia is No. 22) in the latest AP Top 25.
One of my favorite plays of this game came with 7:00 left in the first quarter. Sutton dribbled it it up the floor and found a cutting Joyner Holmes for an easy layup. Just a great designed play for the Horns.
(Also, the Tennessee crowd was so loud and engaged. Props to Texas for not letting that get them out of rhythm.)
This Tennessee team's size is going to make them a very strong squad going forward. There were times where I thought the Longhorns were set up for a solid play inside, and then BOOM, double team comes over and nothing happens for Texas.
But again, adjustment. Quick threes from Jada Underwood to help negate that size. Keeping the ball moving around the perimeter. Head coach Karen Aston has gotten a lot of grief from people, but this was a really good gameplan here. Use your own size to bother Tennessee's size. Use Joyner Holmes on the outside since she has some guard skills and draw Tennessee's bigs away from the basket, which renders them much less effective. Holmes wasn't an offensive threat in this one on the score sheet, but having her out there was still incredibly helpful for Texas.
And then there's Lashann Higgs, who came off the bench in this one. I've been really interested in looking at the various lineups that the Longhorns run out, as Higgs has now come off the bench twice, first against Arizona and this time against Tennessee. I'd wager that in this one, the decision to start Jada Underwood for the first time in a couple weeks was that Underwood had a little more size to help Texas deal with the Lady Vols own size, and her 36 minutes ended up being a season-high because they needed her on the floor.
Aston still found ways to get Higgs involved. She wasn't much of a factor in the first quarter, but as the game went on, Higgs got involved offensively as an off-ball guard. Her ability to spot up and make a jumper or to spot up and then drive the ball inside after the spot up gave the Longhorns another path to find offense in a game where working it inside wasn't working. You don't usually win games when Collier and Holmes are a combined 4-for-19 from the floor, but Texas did that because Higgs has the quickness to make things happen against a team like Tennessee.
Texas also showed a ton of resilience to close this game out. With 4:44 to go in the game, Tennessee cut the Texas lead down to three points at 58-55. From there, Texas allowed just five more points in the final four minutes, and the Longhorns offense slowed the game down. Higgs drove in for a layup at the 3:30 mark to make it 60-55. Texas then trapped Tennessee into a five second violation on the other end, continued to use as much of the shot clock as possible on their offensive possessions, and didn't panic when Tennessee got it back to a three points at 60-57 with a little over two minutes to go.
What they did instead at that point was bring the ball down the floor, and then after Joyner Holmes was fouled, which helped drain more time off the clock, they got to the line on a Sug Sutton drive. Sutton sunk both free throws. Joyner Holmes gets a key block on the other end, and while she ends up fouling out a little later in the possession and sending Kasiyahna Kushkituah to the line. She makes one of her two free throws. It's 62-58. Tennessee misses a short shot on its next possession, and then it's forced to play the foul game, and that's it. Texas makes its free throws and gets the 66-60 victory.
The Longhorns are 5-4 now, and this game might have been the first time I've felt really good about them all year. The Horns are still very much alive in the battle to be the Big 12's second-best school this year, and if they can continue to get strong play out of their guards offensively and bigs defensively, this team's future outlook looks a lot better than it did after the Arizona loss.