In any conceivable best-case scenario formed after the brackets were announced, one of the best seasons in the history of Texas Longhorns women's basketball was always fated to end in the Elite 8 against the UConn Huskies on Monday evening. Since landing the No. 2 seed in the UConn region, the only upside for Texas was in making it far enough for that meeting with destiny.
And so it came to pass -- after a strong run through the team's first three games of the NCAA Tournament, Texas was no match for UConn, falling 86-65 in a game that was close for much of the first half. The Huskies are an unstoppable juggernaut this season on the way to the school's fourth consecutive championship and sixth in eight years and shot 56.4 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from three-point range, and 85.7 percent from the free-throw line.
For a Texas team that only lost to three schools all season, the ending seems a little bit unfair -- Aston's group played well enough all season to deserve better than the No. 2 seed in the unwinnable bracket.
But the tournament committee decided otherwise and the Longhorns had to settle for a well-deserved Elite 8 appearance and the most wins for the program since 1987-88. After the failed Gail Goestenkors experiment, this is the nadir for a women's basketball program that had fallen on hard times in recent years -- the 2002-03 Final Four team under legendary head coach Jody Conradt was the last to make it beyond the Sweet 16.
So the hire of Aston from North Texas has been a success, as her teams have improved each season, from missing the NCAA Tournament to winning a game in the tournament, to winning two games, and now the Elite 8 run.
Led by center Imani Boyette, the departing senior class grew under Aston and helped the program regain its national footing. Losing Boyette in the middle will be especially painful for the team next season, but the UConn loss did provide a scoring showcase for several rising young stars.
Sophomore guard Ariel Atkins, a left hander with a smooth stroke and slashing style, scored 19 points against the Huskies and averaged 18 points per game during the NCAA Tournament. Speedy freshman Lashann Higgs matched the production of Atkins in scoring 19 points and setting a career high, while sophomore Brooke McCarty hit four three pointers to add 15 points of her own.
Along with junior center Kelsey Lang, who will see an increased role once again next season, that nucleus will receive a boost from the nation's No. 3 recruiting class, according to ESPN. Led by two five-star prospects, the class should ensure that the 'Horns are once again competitive, perhaps even more competitive than this season, which featured three tough losses to the conference rival Bears.
Cedar Hill forward Joyner Holmes is the crown jewel of the class as the No. 2 prospect in the nation. At 6'3, she's a versatile player who can do it all on the floor and already has international experience as a member of the 2014 USA Basketball women's U17 world championship team. Holmes is strong, athletic, can finish through contact, and also boasts range on her jump shot.
Higgs won't have the carry the primary ball-handling role with Joyner capable of playing some point forward and the addition of the other five-star prospect, St. Louis (Miss.) Parkway North point guard Alecia Sutton, who should ensure that Texas is an effective team in transition with her own superb athleticism and finishing and distribution ability.
So this should be a fun team to watch next season as the young core spends the offseason positioning themselves to avenge those three losses to Baylor.