Commentary

Young Horns, Coach G feeling little pressure on eve of tourney

Updated: March 23, 2008, 12:37 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Gail Goestenkors will never look this relatively relaxed before an NCAA tournament again.

Her Texas team is a No. 8 seed here and will play in the late game Sunday against No. 9 Minnesota. The Longhorns got hot at the right time -- the last three games of the regular season and the Big 12 tournament -- and earned themselves an at-large bid to the Big Dance in Goestenkors' first season in Austin, Texas.

She said Saturday that it has been, "One of my most rewarding seasons."

Texas had missed the NCAA tournament the last two years, and the program had seen its discipline and focus erode. After three decades, Jody Conradt was ready to hand over the reigns, and did so at the right time.

The Horns were young and the Big 12 was deep when Goestenkors stepped in, so the external expectations for this season were not enormous. The expectations she had for herself, though, were still pretty big.

For one thing, she wanted to create a new atmosphere while being careful to maintain the proper amount of "reverence" for what Texas used to be when it was at its best and she had to win over her players on an individual and collective basis.

The Horns did not have much cohesion, leadership or toughness by the end of last season. It was a lot of kids all going in different directions. That's one of the things Goestenkors had to change. She needed to build trust.

She's a head coach who has always sweated the details and handled a ton of responsibility herself. Especially in terms of how each player's development needed to be unique to that player. Goestenkors has spent a great deal of time this season monitoring how every Longhorn has progressed on and off the court.

So Texas comes into this NCAA tournament in learning-and-growing mode, and that's why Goestenkors doesn't need to feel stressed. Every bit of this experience will be good for her players, all but one of whom -- senior Erneisha Bailey -- return next season.

And you can't help but juxtapose this against recent years for Goestenkors.

Consider Sunday's opponent, Minnesota. Coach Pam Borton's Gophers went on a Final Four run back in 2004. Minnesota was not seeded properly that year because of Lindsay Whalen's pre-tournament injury. The committee gave the Gophers a No. 7 seed, but Whalen returned in great form. Minnesota was really much more like a No. 2 (or at worst No. 3).

Instead, the Gophers just mowed down the higher seeds like Kansas State, Boston College and Duke that year. The regional final win over the Blue Devils was a heartbreaker for Duke star Alana Beard, as it was her final college game.

Two years later -- here in Bridgeport, in fact -- the Blue Devils won a 63-61 overtime regional final over UConn. So that's a happy memory for Goestenkors. But … at the Final Four that year, of course, Duke lost the championship game to Maryland in overtime. And that's the worst defeat Goestenkors ever endured.

Of course, you can also look at a year ago, when Duke was a No. 1 seed again, but under obvious pressure because of past NCAA disappointments and -- more to the point -- because of Texas' courtship of Goestenkors.

The gut-wrenching loss to Rutgers in the Sweet 16 was her final defeat as the Blue Devils' coach. That loss in Greensboro Coliseum seemed rather ironic -- since that was where Duke had made its big breakthrough in 1999 by winning the East Regional title game over Tennessee.

So this is the transition year for Goestenkors. When the past is still fresh -- but definitely not in any way haunting her. When the future is bright, with current sophomores such as Brittainey Raven, Carla Cortijo and Earnesia Williams expected to continue to play big roles. When the present is truly something to enjoy because there isn't all that emotional weight riding on every shot, the way it felt like there was for Duke the last several tournaments.

The pressure will be back soon enough as Texas ascends again on the national scene in the coming years.

But Goestenkors is able to say this season, "This whole journey has been one where we haven't felt pressured, because we knew we were a young team. We knew that we were building for the future."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.