It was a rainy February day in Austin, Texas, but inside the Frank Erwin Center, the sixth-ranked University of Texas women’s basketball team was preparing intently for the following day’s game against Texas Tech. There were no fans in the stands, no announcer’s voice when a player sunk a three-pointer, and no band playing the fight song. But the saying “practice how you want to play” still held true.
After all, effort and hard work are at times more important than the drills themselves. That’s what makes a well-prepared game plan look perfect on game day and what can make the difference in how a team performs in March. (The Longhorns, now ranked No. 8 in the country, find out on Monday how they will be seeded in this year’s NCAA tournament.)
Jamie Carey is one of the assistant coaches currently leading practices for the Longhorns. Now in her second season at Texas, she coaches the guards, and I shadowed her for the day as the team practiced for its game against Texas Tech.
Carey first came to Texas in 2003 after playing one year at Stanford. She had suffered concussions that sidelined her for two years, but she was hopeful about her basketball career and the research being done on head injuries at the University of Texas. “[Sitting out] was extremely challenging, but I did a couple of things,” Carey told me. “One was taking a student-athlete-coach role. That got me involved in the game-planning. And I was still able to be at every practice.”
Her decision proved to be the right one, as Carey played again and led the Texas women’s basketball team to the Final Four in 2003. (She still holds the program career record for three-point percentage.) Following her career in the WNBA, which ended in 2008, Carey, a Colorado native, was offered a head-coaching job at Legacy High in her home state, and posted an .809 winning percentage in two seasons. It was just the beginning of a second career for Carey, who says she never saw herself coaching!
My afternoon with the team started off with a media session, where forward Jordan Hosey and head coach Karen Aston both spoke of the upcoming game. Aston told me the biggest change from the last time that they’d played the Lady Raiders was their defense. “We’ve gotten more connected defensively, our help is better, and overall we’re a little bit more sound,” she said. I then joined Carey for the team’s film session.
When you walk into the film room, you immediately feel a sense of focus. The coaches talked about man-to-man coverage, the Texas Tech scouting report, and a new offensive formation that the Lady Raiders had been running. Carey specifically talked about Tech’s defense, as she is responsible for the Horns’ offense. Tips and strategies on how to beat the Lady Raiders’ tall post players were offered, as well as ways to beat Tech on other parts of the floor. It is clear that the players have to show effort not just on the court, but in the film room as well. The average basketball fan can learn a lot by sitting in on just one film session.
Next, the team walked into the basketball center’s orange-and white weight and training room. Sports performance coach Zack Zillner gave the players a detailed workout plan, and the intensity level quickly became high. The players lifted weights, moved kettlebells, and stretched. “At this point in the season,” Carey mentioned, “the weight lifting is more about maintaining muscle than building it.”
Practice began about 15 minutes later, as most practices do, with a warmup and shootaround, followed by fast-paced “fast break” drills that the players looked like they’d mastered since day one. They then split into two groups, with one working on drills and the other on plays. As I watched the second group, I noticed that the players wouldn’t just run the play right, they’d run it to perfection. Aston repeatedly told the players throughout practice, “It’s the little details that matter,” and that would prove to be important in their next game.
The team transitioned into a full-on, passionately-played scrimmage against the practice squad (a group of male players who mimic the opponent’s offense and defense). Despite no fans in the stands or pump-up songs on the jumbotron, the intensity level of the scrimmage resembled a real game. Among the focal points for the Longhorns were rebounding and communication. These are two skills that are important in any game, but Aston mentioned them during this scrimmage, as she knew that they were essential to earning a win the following night.
The Longhorns went on to beat Texas Tech 87–72 and get a road win three days later against Oklahoma State. The Texas players put in so much effort and hard work, from the film session to the weight room to their scrimmages, that it was unsurprising to see that effort translate into wins on the court. It’s that effort, along with precise execution, that could make them a national championship contender this month.
Photographs by: Patrick Meredith/Texas Athletics (huddle, Carey coaching, Texas Tech game); Elsa/Getty Images (Carey as a player); Riley Zayas (interview, court)