- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Three minutes. That's what cost Texas a shot at the NCAA title last season.
In their first Final Four appearance in 16 years, the Longhorns had Connecticut on the ropes. But Texas' six-point lead late in the game fizzled away as the Longhorns went scoreless for nearly three minutes, allowing the Huskies to close the national semifinal with an 11-3 run.
UConn advanced to the title game, ultimately winning its second straight NCAA title. Texas went home empty-handed.
But here's the silver lining. While everybody's back for UConn, nearly every key player also returns for Texas, which could very well be on track for another deep run this March.
A look at the West's top seed:
1. What has impressed you most about Texas so far this season?
The Longhorns have a great starting five and tremendous depth, beginning with an incredible sixth woman off the bench, whether it's Tiffany Jackson or Nina Norman.
Texas' inside-outside game also presents a lot of matchup problems -- it's tough to play tight on the perimeter because the Longhorns' inside game -- led by 6-foot-1 senior center Stacy Stephens on the low block -- is so good. And you can't sag off the perimeter because juniors Jamie Carey and Heather Schreiber can nail the 3-pointer.
Stephens is a great rebounder and short-range, turnaround jumper type of player. Schreiber, a 6-2 forward, also has had a great year. She's a lot longer and quicker than people think. Schreiber's incredibly good off the dribble, can pull up, shoot 3s over you or score around you. The lefty is just a great athlete who's versatility makes her hard to guard.
Carey is a brilliant leader. Norman, a sophomore guard, has some tremendous individual talent and seems to come up big in big games.
And Tiffany Jackson, ESPN.com's freshman of the year, has been fantastic. For her age, she's very intelligent and has a lot of basketball knowledge. Her quick transition to the college ranks has been impressive, and she has learned how to read defenses and make good, quick decisions. Jackson also averages 1.6 assists, which isn't bad for a post. And as the season progressed and she got more playing time, you could see the 6-3 forward becoming more and more confident, even handling the ball occasionally in the open court.
2. What has surprised you most about Texas?
As mentioned before the bracket was unveiled, Texas' lineup shuffling has been cause for concern. In late January, coach Jody Conradt wanted to go with a bigger lineup and inserted Jackson into the lineup, leaving Carey on the bench. In February, Norman took over point guard duties here and there, and that has hurt Texas' cohesiveness. That's not to say that Norman isn't qualified. But the point guard is the most important position on the floor, both emotionally and physically, and it's easier on a team's offensive rhythm and flow to have one designated point guard running the show. Name a point guard and stick with her.
While Carey's confidence might not be as strong since some of her duties have been handed over to Norman, this lineup change also has negatively affected Schreiber. When Conradt inserts Jackson into the lineup, Schreiber often ends up moving from the 4 to the 3 spot. But Schreiber's at her best as a 4, where she causes a lot of mismatch problems because she's just as big as her opponent but typically much quicker. She loses that advantage as a 3 because her defender is just as fast as she is.
3. What is Texas' biggest strength and weakness?
We've already addressed the Longhorns' starting five, which is one of the best in the country and, along with depth and experience, Texas' main strengths.
The Longhorns' cohesiveness and chemistry, however, are suspect considering the inconsistency in the lineup. And we really got a chance to see how that can affect Texas in the Feb. 22 loss to Texas Tech. Carey didn't start that game and finished with just three points on 1-for-9 shooting. The 'Horns led 31-26 at halftime, but never got into their offensive rhythm after the break, making only 6 of 25 field-goal attempts in the second half.
Cold shooting is one thing, but Texas was indecisive and never showed any resiliency in the second half, and I was surprised the 'Horns weren't able to mount any sort of second-half comeback. They cannot afford a game like that -- or the way they played against Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship, a 19-point rout by the Sooners --- in the NCAA Tournament.
The whole country got a chance to see how vulnerable Texas can be, and that means everyone might bring a little more confidence against the Longhorns.
4. Who's the wild card for Texas that we might not have heard much about?
Everybody knows who Kala Bowers is, but a lot of people don't understand how important the 6-2 junior guard/forward is to the Longhorns' success. After graduating great defensive stopper Tai Dillard and then losing Anissa Hastings to a ruptured left Achilles tendon, Bowers has continued to emerge as the team's best defensive specialist. She's also very consistent in every statistical category: 24.4 mpg, 7.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.5 spg, 41 percent from the field.
Though Bowers had a great sophomore season -- 9.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, started 34 of 35 games -- her presence has been especially important this year. She can play the 2 or 3, and like Schreiber, she's quicker than most people think and her versatility causes mismatch problems.
The best part about Bowers? She doesn't mind that her teammates are the stars. She's very content to do whatever it takes for the team to win.
5. What does Texas need to do to win the NCAA title?
Get back on track. Move past that 19-point blowout in the Big 12 final. Go to Chemistry 101 and get it back.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
18dBonnie D. Ford