First-year head coach Karen Aston already had her work cut out for her as she sought to restore pride to the Texas program. The glory days under Hall of Famer Jody Conradt, the mentor under whom Aston served for eight years as an assistant and associate head coach from 1998-2006, have faded, and the young team's losses have started to accumulate.
Aston's difficult job even became harder still on Tuesday, as two of the veteran leaders of the team, 6-4 center Cokie Reed, a senior who had arrived on campus as one of the top five recruits in her high school graduating class, and junior guard Chelsea Bass, both left the team due to medical issues.
Reed’s loss was the biggest blow. The McDonald’s and WBCA High School All-American, who boasts an 82-inch wingspan, was an instant success at Texas, joining Baylor’s Brittney Griner on a Big 12 All-Freshman Team that featured three centers that season (2009-10). But the following year found Reed sidelined for the entire season after undergoing surgery to remove an extra bone and repair a tendon in her right foot. Last year, Reed was back in the starting lineup for most of the 29 games in which she appeared, but the lingering foot problems limited her playing time and resulted in a fall-off in both scoring and rebounding. (It’s never a good thing when your starting center ranks third on the team in rebounding average at 4.5 boards per game.)
What at first appeared to be a healthier Cokie Reed featured large in Aston’s plans to bring back the winning tradition at Texas. “She’s going to play an integral role,” Aston told Full Court in mid-November, shortly after a 70-60 victory in Texas’ road opener against then-No. 14/13 St. John’s in a Daytona Beach tournament vaulted the ‘Horns, who had been unranked in preseason, into the Top 25 in both major national polls by the second week of the season.
“She’s healthy – as healthy as Cokie probably is going to get at this point,” Aston continued. “She’s worked her tail off this summer and this fall. You know, I don’t know that she’s a 40-minute player, but most post players aren’t. But I do think she’s put herself in a position to give this program everything she’s got, and she’s doing that. So do I think she’s going to be a huge piece of this? Yes. Just because she has experience, she has maturity, and she is a really good basketball player. I’m proud of where Cokie’s at. I’m really proud of her.”
But as the season progressed, it became apparent that Reed was not as healthy Aston had initially thought. Reed missed four of the Longhorns’ 15 games entirely, and came off the bench for limited minutes in four others. And when she did play, Reed’s minutes were even more limited – 17.4 per game – than Aston had anticipated. Reed still gave Texas everything she had, averaging 9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and more than a block per game. But something was plainly ailing the talented young player.
It also became apparent that Reed’s problems went beyond lingering foot or knee issues. Reed’s absences this season had previously been attributed to “a minor head injury” and to an unspecified “illness,” but in announcing her retirement from basketball yesterday at the tender age of 21, Reed revealed that she had been diagnosed with exercise-induced hypertension, a form of high blood pressure caused by exercise and other forms of physical exertion and a marker for other, even more serious, forms of vascular disease. While exercise is advocated by many, including the Mayo Clinic, as a means of prevention and a lifestyle remedy for other forms of high blood pressure, for those with exercise-induced hypertension, a relatively rare but often misdiagnosed condition among active individuals, exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, can cause a wide range of symptoms that can worsen over time.
And high-intensity exercise is a big part of the changes that Aston and her staff have been rolling out this season in Austin. “You know, I love to run,” said Aston. “I like up-tempo style. That’s why I love defensive rebounding, because it really translates to the next part of the game that I love which is getting up and down.”
Months before Reed’s condition came to light, Aston acknowledged that her preferred pace of play has come as a major adjustment for all of her players, but perhaps for her posts in particular. “If you came [to practice] on a normal day, the pace is really high -– high intensity, really fast pace. So these players are struggling with the pace that we’re playing at every day. In particular, our post players are being asked to really run the floor –- every possession. Everybody’s being asked to run the floor every possession. So I think that is different for them.
“And then you’re throwing [it] at all these young kids, who are going, ‘Hey, you really want me to do this every day?'” Aston added, laughing. “So that’s difficult for them, you know, because we have a lot of young kids that are going to be asked to play a lot of minutes. But, if you asked, that would be a synopsis of my style of play.”
Regrettably, though she had another full year of eligibility remaining, Reed’s body was simply not equipped to maintain that high pace. “I have been advised by the UT medical staff that it is in my best interest to retire from the game of basketball,” Reed said in a written statement released by the university Tuesday. “With one semester remaining before graduation, it is time for me to focus on my health and academics and a future after basketball.”
The departure of Bass is also a blow to a team that had only one other guard (junior Chassidy Fussell) with prior Division I experience entering this season. Known for a sweet three-point shot and often praised by former Texas coach Gail Goestenkors for her defensive efforts, Bass provided a valued spark off the bench for Texas last season and even earned two starts before suffering a high-ankle sprain in practice last February that sidelined her for five games. Though she averaged 7.3 points per game as a sophomore, Bass contributed eight double-digit games last year, including an 18-point explosion against Missouri, with her career-high of 29 points coming as a freshman.
But at least the temporary loss of the injury-plagued Bass was a known quantity for Aston as she prepared to embark on her first season at the helm. Bass appeared only once for Texas this season, posting 11 points, including two three-pointers and five-of-eight from the charity stripe, in her eight minutes on the floor on Nov. 30 in a 79-30 blowout over Texas A&M–Corpus Christi. But though it received little notice at the time, Bass wound up crumpled on the floor, on the receiving end of a charge, sustaining what has subsequently been variously described as “a mild head injury” and a concussion.
Fellow-junior Chassidy Fussell and Reed also reportedly suffered concussions/”mild head injuries” in the same game.
At the time, Bass laughed it off, saying she would never let a few concussions change the way she played basketball and focusing instead on how important it had been for her to get a chance to play. “It was a very important and special game for me,” Bass said at the time. “Coming back from injury has been a long road, and I just wanted to come out and show that I have been working really hard to come back.”
But the head injury was the fourth of Bass’ college career and after a medical re-evaluation, Bass has been on the sidelines in street clothes ever since. According to the Austin-American Statesman, in February of her freshman year, Bass had suffered her first concussion in a game against Baylor, leaving her with occasional headaches and dizziness. She started her sophomore season by being accidently kicked in the head by a teammate, missing most of the preseason as well as the team’s first two games, but was cleared to play by mid-November. Bass suffered yet another concussion over the summer, and returning to practice in early December after the injury at the A&M-Corpus Christi game, Bass knocked heads with a male practice opponent, suffering what was described as another “mild head injury.”
Bass did not elaborate on her medical condition in announcing her retirement from basketball Tuesday, stating only that “after careful consideration and extensive insight from the UT medical staff and various doctors, I have accepted their recommendation that it is best for me to retire from basketball at this time. I have had a wonderful three years with the Texas women’s basketball team, but the time has come for me to focus solely on academics and my future without basketball.”
Aston, who has seen her team slide from peak of No. 12 in this season’s national polls to its current six-game losing streak, the worst in program history, thanked both players for their “efforts and commitment to our program.”
“They have always represented Texas with class, both on-and-off the court. We wish them the very best as they move forward in the next phase of their lives.”
Despite the recent losing streak, and a season record now mired in the red, both overall (7-8) and in conference play (0-4), there are reasons to remain optimistic for the future at Texas. Aston, who made two trips to the Sweet 16 and one to the NCAA Final Four alongside Conradt before moving on to an associate position with Kim Mulkey at Baylor and subsequent head coaching stints at Charlotte and North Texas, has hired a promising new staff, which includes, among others, several elite former Longhorn players: associate head coach and UT Men’s Hall of Famer Travis Mays; special assistant coach Amie Smith Bradley (1993-97), one of the leading scorers in the women’s program; and All-American Stacy Stephens (2000-04), a two-time finalist for both the Wade Trophy and the Naismith award, who helped lead the ‘Horns to the 2003 NCAA Final Four.
Aston's young players are also showing enormous promise. Though Baylor’s Brittney Griner remains the most celebrated player in the Big 12, if not all of women’s college basketball, Texas’ sophomore forward Nneka Enemkpali is the only player in the Big 12 Conference currently averaging a double-double (14.1 points, 10.4 rebounds per game); Enemkpali leads the league in rebounding and has registered a Big 12-high eight double-doubles this season.
Freshman center Imani McGee-Stafford is hot on her teammate’s heels with five double-doubles (third best in the Big 12) and her 2.53 swats per game put her third in the league overall, and first among Big-12 freshmen. (For Big 12 trivia buffs, the No. 1 spot is currently held not by the most likely suspect, but rather by TCU junior Latricia Lovings with 3.56 blocks per game, while Baylor’s Griner weighs in at No. 2 with 2.67 blocks per game.)
Freshman point guard Empress Davenport is also “emerging quickly,” according to Aston, with a career and team-high 14 points against West Virginia, as is fellow-frosh Celina Rodrigo who pulled down a game-high nine boards for Texas in the same game.
Aston has pulled in bench reinforcements from elsewhere in the UT athletic department in the persons of senior guard Nadia Taylor, playing her first year of varsity basketball after four seasons at third base for Longhorn softball, and 6-4 freshman forward Sara Hattis, a member of the 2012 NCAA champion volleyball team
And perhaps most importantly, since recovering from missing three games after having her own bell rung, Fussell, who is, according to Aston, the closest thing Texas currently has to a vocal floor leader, especially now in the wake of Reed’s retirement, is coming into her own. Fussell currently leads the team’s four double-digit scorers with 16.2 points per game, to which she adds 5.3 boards, 1.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
The pieces, then, are there. As are, said Aston, in the wake of two humiliating losses to Iowa and Central Michigan at a holiday tournament in San Diego, the pride of play and the effort that were her top priorities to instill in her players during her first year at the helm. What the young Longhorns unquestionably need is seasoning, something they will get in spades as they slog their way through the grueling Big 12 season. And, as their atrocious turnover rate reflects -– the ‘Horns rank dead last in the Big 12 in both assist-to-turnover ratio (13.7:20.6 per game, or 0.67:1) and in turnover margin (-3.4) – Aston must still teach her team to play together. As things stand now, the first year of the Aston era at Texas looks likely to turn out worse than the 18-14, 8-10 season that saw Goestenkors step down to nobody’s great dismay. The expectations are high when “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” something Aston is well aware of, but a reality she finds exciting, rather than intimidating and part of the tradition of excellence that brought her back to the 40 acres in the first place.