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AUSTIN (AP) – Missouri brought size. However, Texas brought speed and aggressive defense. The Longhorns used both to reach the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year.
Ariel Atkins scored 22 points and No. 2 seed Texas earned the trip with a 73-55 win over No. 10 Missouri on Monday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in which the Longhorns overmatched the Tigers in earning their 17th win at home this season.
The Longhorns will have to leave Austin as they look to make their deepest run in the postseason since a Final Four in 2003. They made the Sweet 16 last year before a 51-point loss to Connecticut and now they head back in the Huskies’ den in the Bridgeport, Connecticut.
“You want to take significant steps every year,” Texas coach Karen Aston said. “Clearly one of our goals was to get back to the Sweet 16 and have an opportunity to take another step which we didn’t get to take last year which was to get to the Elite Eight. We have that opportunity again.”
Lashann Higgs scored 11 points and was a sparkplug off the bench for the Longhorns (30-4), who overcame early shooting woes to build a double-digit lead by halftime in cruising to the win.
Sophie Cunningham scored 23 points for Missouri (22-10), which had made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Missouri’s starting lineup is 6-foot or taller and Texas worried that the Tigers could look for the same kind of matchup problems they exploited in a first-round win over BYU.
But the speed of Atkins, Higgs and guards Celina Rodrigo and Brooke McCarty shut down entry passes and harassed Missouri’s ball handlers the entire game.
Cunningham looked to have Missouri rolling early when she hit two 3-pointers for the game’s first baskets and pumped her fist as an exclamation point. But the rest of her team couldn’t match her.
“We threw the first punch,” Cunningham said. “But we have to keep punching.”
The Longhorns shook off a 0-for-7 shooting start with a 17-3 run that pushed the ball in transition and kept the bigger Tigers backpedaling.
Despite their quick start, the Tigers were just 3 of 16 shooting in the first quarter and launched 11 3-point attempts instead of trying to attack 6-foot-7 Texas center Imani Boyette under the basket.
Three consecutive 3-pointers pushed the Texas lead to 14 in the second. Nothing captured Texas’ advantage in speed and athleticism like a play late in the quarter.
Cunningham picked off an errant pass and sprinted to the basket, but missed the layup over two Texas defenders. With one quick outlet pass to halfcourt, McCarty found Higgs for an easy layup at the other end as Texas took a 36-21 lead into halftime.
Texas had several chances to open a huge edge in the third, pushing the lead as high as 18 as Atkins made her third 3-pointer and Higgs kept doing her work on defense and in transition.
Cunningham scored nine in the quarter to keep the Tigers in it, even though they couldn’t shave the deficit under 10. The Tigers’ last push came early in the fourth when Cunningham’s steal and layup cut the Texas lead to 54-43. But Atkins converted a 3-point play and Kelsey Lang’s layup after a nifty pass from Brianna Taylor had the Longhorns off and running again.
“They kind of didn’t guard me in the third quarter, so my teammates were screaming at me, so my teammates were screaming, `You’re open, you need to shoot,”‘ Atkins said.
Missouri: Unwilling to challenge Texas inside, the Tigers attempted 28 3-pointers and made eight.
Texas: The Longhorns average 16 turnovers a game, but in the postseason have tightened up what had been a chronic problem. Texas had 13 against Missouri compared to 20 assists on 30 field goals.
DOMINANT IN THE POST
Texas outrebounded Missouri 36-29 and outscored the Tigers 32-8 in the paint.
“The physicality of the game was more than I expected,” Missouri forward Jordan Frericks said.
Missouri: Season’s over.
Texas: Against UCLA on Saturday.
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