Women’s Basketball enduring growing pains
In her 30th season as head women’s basketball coach at The University of Texas, Jody Conradt took to the court last fall with her youngest team in memory.
"Baby steps," Conradt said with a half-laugh as she thought about her newcomers' entry into college action.
Six seniors departed and seven freshmen were ready to carry on the great tradition of UT women's basketball.
What they weren't ready for was a schedule that only the Marquis de Sade would have loved.
Conradt's Kids were looking at games at Tennessee and Rutgers, along with an Erwin Center date against Duke, all before the New Year.
"That is a schedule that would be tough for a veteran team," said Conradt. "For this team, well…"
For this team, it resulted in three lopsided defeats, but not a loss in resolve.
"We're getting better," said Conradt, who enjoyed a special personal moment of achievement at the end of January following a triumph against Oklahoma State in the Erwin Center.
With her mother Ann in the crowd, Conradt passed North Carolina men's coaching legend Dean Smith to move into second place among the all-time winningest coaches. It was victory No. 880 for Conradt, who trails only Tennessee's Pat Summit on the all-time list.
Pleased with that milestone, Conradt's focus remained on the improvement of her young team and having them prepared for a trip to the NCAA Championship.
"The learning curve has been a lot larger than I wanted it to be," said Conradt. "We had some disappointments early, but this team still has the chance to be one Texas would be proud of."
Conradt hastened to add that she was proud of this team which began the year with only two experienced veterans -- junior Tiffany Jackson and senior point guard Nina Norman.
"And what became evident to me was that for both Nina and Tiffany, this was the first time for it to be their team," Conradt said. "For them, Jamie Carey, Heather Schreiber and Kala Bowers always had been around. This was the first time they had been in these kinds of leadership positions."
Jackson said following a loss at Kansas three days into the New Year, Conradt talked to her about stepping up her game and being more consistent.
"Of course, Tiffany has been a great player for us since she got here," Conradt noted of her All-American junior. "The difference is that she must take ownership of this team."
She also must bounce back from a right ankle injury that caused her to be carried off the floor in Colorado February 4.
And as far as the highly regarded freshman recruiting class which was ranked No. 1 in the country, a knee injury had sidelined Duncanville center Mariana Mergerson, although she now has gotten back on the floor for limited minutes.
Texas got a crushing double-blow against No. 1 Duke on December 4, losing two high school All-Americans and potential starters: Earnesia Williams, who suffered a season-ending ACL knee injury, and Carla Cortijo, who re-injured her knee (ACL injury in high school) and who has just started practicing again in late January.
Ashley Lindsey and Aubry Cook are making contributions.
Erika Arriaran, the Parade Magazine Player of the Year at Norco (Calif.) High School, is second only to Jackson in scoring. She led the team in scoring against Oklahoma State. She entered February leading UT's free throw percentage at 89.3 percent.
"Coach said I have to shoot well to play," the freshman noted.
"This team has fought," Conradt said.
That's evidenced by the overtime victory against Kansas State, which enabled Conradt to tie Smith for second-most victories and the triumph against Oklahoma State.
"I think we've finally grown up," she said. "I think this team is moving forward. We were stuck for awhile and couldn't seem to understand what we needed to do to improve."