Before the game against the No. 23 Kansas on Tuesday, the Texas women’s basketball team received a pep talk from their high school football coach.
When Steve Sarkisian spoke to Vic Schaefer’s Longhorns, he pointed out that the hand has five fingers. If that hand is used to hitting, he preached, it will hurt. But it won’t be as effective as a clenched fist.
These five fingers represented the five players on the basketball court. Individually, each player can deal some damage. But if they all work together, they can really strike.
“I think it’s so good,” said Texas sophomore Rory Harmon a few days later. “I think the theme this week was just working together.”
Harmon ended up borrowing Sarkeesian’s words for the Instagram caption, so consider that the final stamp of approval. And with a football coach sitting on the court, Texas beat Kansas by 13 points.
Five days after this knockout, Texas (12-5, 3-1) will return to the ring for a Sunday afternoon bout with No. 15 Iowa (11-3, 3-1).
In 14 games, Iowa State made 128 of 405 three-pointers. The Cyclones are averaging 9.1 three-pointers per game, ranking ninth in the nation. Only four of the 350 Division I teams average more. Every predicted player has made at least 10 points this season. Iowa State’s all-time leading scorer, Ashley Jones, has 2.79 triples per game, the second best in the Big 12.
“Their staff is such that, man, they can all really shoot,” Schaefer said.
Speaking of his defensive philosophy, Schaefer has repeatedly noted that the Longhorns do not “stand in the 2-3 zone, playing defense and hoping to miss.” Texas uses an aggressive individual approach that often lengthens the length of the court.
“It’s definitely what Texas is, it’s aggressiveness, and people hate playing in Texas because of it,” UT quarterback Shailey Gonzalez said. “I feel like we need to work better as a team to get our defense where it needs to be.”
Texas allowed the Big 12-low 71 3-pointer. Opponents made just 228 attempts against UT, the 16th lowest in the country.
Not that the Longhorns didn’t have defensive issues. UConn hit eight of the 15 3-pointers he tried against Texas in November. Florida South were 9 of 17 at the Moody Center on Dec. 2 and Oklahoma State were 8 of 20 in their home game against UT last weekend. Texas lost all three games.
As Schaefer took over ahead of the 2020–21 season, Texas is playing 6-0 against Iowa State. Two of those wins were in the Big 12. Last season, Iowa State hit 20-for-49 on 3-pointers against Texas. The Cyclones have made 20 of 55 UT-ISU games in the 2020-21 season.
“I’m not sure if the team I have now has already achieved discipline, and it worries me before Sunday,” Schaefer said. “We’ll have to keep working on it.”
Harmon will lead the Texas attack on the perimeter. A member of the 2022 All-Big 12 defensive team, she missed the first five games of this season. She still leads the team with 32 steals. Her likely assignment on Sunday will be playmate Emily Ryan. Forty-six of the Iowa State junior’s 101 passes provided a three-pointer for a teammate, and she made 17 three-pointers herself.
Texas will also try to get Iowa shooters with the help of Gonzalez and Sonia Morris. It was an adjustment season for both Morris and Gonzalez, who moved to Texas during the offseason.
Gonzalez said she wasn’t taught to be this aggressive at BYU and is still working on improving her ball defense. Last season, Morris played for DePaul’s team, which led the nation in offensive scoring but ranked last in defensive scoring.
“It’s all about habits; you need to get rid of all habits. Just like with DePaul, we’ve never been this aggressive, we’ve never been this focused on defense,” Morris said. “It’s definitely an adjustment. I’m still working on myself.”
In the 2019-20 season, Morris led the Big East with 75 interceptions. Gonzalez has had the second most steals in the West Coast Conference in each of the past two seasons. But none of them were recruited to Texas because of her defensive prowess. Both were regarded by Schaefer as a culture that could score. Gonzalez and Morris are in the top 10 scorers in their old school history books and have averaged 12.1 and 11.8 points as a team this winter.
Now hiring a potential client who isn’t an outstanding defensive player isn’t a problem if that recruit is in high school.
“You recruit (a prep player) who has an offensive skill set and you teach them how to defend,” Schaefer said. Transfers, however, are a different story.
After studying Gonzalez and Morris, Schaefer thought that both players wanted to improve their defense and would work on themselves. Gonzalez scored a career-high 26 points against the Jayhawks last week, but Schaefer analyzed that “her defense was really good” against Kansas guard Vivette Mayberry.
“It’ll take a minute,” Harmon said. “You leave the schools they came from, where the basketball game is different, the flow, the level and all that, and you come to the University of Texas playing for Vic Schaefer. I mean, it’s a big deal and it’s not easy to quickly get used to it. I still believe they are getting used to it, but they definitely understand better that defense will always come first.”
No. 15 Iowa State (11-3, 3-1) in Texas (12-5, 3-1), 4 p.m., ESPN2, 105.3