March 19, 2009

Coach Gail Goestenkors took Texas to the 2008 NCAA tournament in her first season in Austin, and the Longhorns will head into this year's tournament with a better seed than they did a year ago.

What they're missing this time around, though, is momentum.

The sixth-seeded Longhorns were once ranked as high as fourth in the nation, but they've lost six times in their last eight games heading into a first-round matchup with Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon in Columbus.

Texas (22-11) was a No. 8 seed for the NCAAs last season - Goestenkors' first after leaving perennial powerhouse Duke - and won its first-round matchup before getting blown out by top-seeded Connecticut in the second round.

The No. 25 Longhorns are a No. 6 seed this season, but they once appeared headed for much more. They started 11-0, with three of those wins coming against ranked teams, and climbed as high as fourth in the AP poll. They lost five of their next eight but bounced back with five straight victories.

Since that stretch - which included road wins over a pair of top-20 opponents - Texas has been in a nosedive. The Longhorns' only two wins in their last eight contests came against Big 12 lightweight Missouri.

The biggest problem for Texas has been offense, as it's averaged 58.6 points in its last eight games. The Longhorns have shot 33.6 percent from the field in losing four of their last five.

Texas has also struggled defensively, allowing 64.3 points a contest in those eight games - six above its season average.

"When our defense is on, we're at our best," freshman guard Ashleigh Fontenette said. "Then, we're able to get into our offense and find our shooters. It all comes from driving and kicking - moving the ball."

Led by junior guard Brittainey Raven and her 13.3 points per game, Texas averages 70.4 points - third in the Big 12. The Longhorns are 15-0 when they top 70 points.

Offense may not be easy to come by against Mississippi State (22-9), which is 21st in the nation in scoring defense at 54.9 points per game. The Lady Bulldogs are 13-0 when they allow 50 or fewer and 18-1 if they give up 61 or fewer.

Mississippi State won its last two regular-season games and its first-round SEC tournament game before falling 63-58 to LSU in the quarterfinals.

Coach Sharon Fanning, though, was just happy her team made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.

"This year, we finished in the top half of the league and we have an opportunity for the NCAA tournament, two goals we set at the beginning of the year," Fanning said. "Hopefully, we will play our best basketball (in Columbus)."

Alexis Rack is the Lady Bulldogs' leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, and much of her production comes from behind the arc. The junior guard shoots 8.8 3-pointers per game - tied for second in the nation.

She makes only 30.1 percent, however, which ranks 290th in the country.

If Rack is shooting well, Mississippi State tends to do well. When she's hit 40.0 percent or better from the field, the Lady Bulldogs are 8-1.

The winner will face third-seeded Ohio State or 14th-seeded Sacred Heart on Monday.