To be Lashann Higgs. To be Alecia Sutton.
To have to come off the bench and be ready whenever you’re called. Or needed. Just like Sunday afternoon, in Texas’ 84-80 second-round thriller over North Carolina State in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The third-seeded Longhorns (25-8) are headed to their third straight Sweet 16 thanks in large part to Sunday’s bench production — Texas’ bench outscored the Wolfpack’s 29-5 — especially Higgs and Sutton, who’s nicknamed “Sug,” short for Sugar.
Higgs, a sophomore guard, scored 12 points. Sutton, a freshman guard, scored 10. Each played 20 minutes. And each was needed in the first quarter because of early foul trouble for starters Ariel Atkins and Brianna Taylor. Taylor picked up two fouls less than two minutes into the game; Atkins had two in less than five minutes.
“They were really the difference in the game,” said Texas coach Karen Aston. “Sug was confident today. She looked like a confident basketball player and I’ve just been waiting on that, because she is such a special player. Lashann gave us big minutes.”
Both were thrown into the frying pan. Sutton and Higgs had to guard Miah Spencer and Dominique Wilson, who combined for 58 of the Wolfpack’s 80 points. They also had to score and contribute on the offensive end. If they didn’t, Texas probably wouldn’t be flying to Lexington on Thursday.
Only four players scored in double figures for the Longhorns — Brooke McCarty, Joyner Holmes, Higgs and Sutton.
“We prepared for this in practice,” Higgs said. “We just have to always be ready.”
Always be ready. Aston has preached that all season and both Higgs and Sutton have been prepared all season, no matter their role. Sutton averaged 13.5 minutes a game this season and 3.8 points. Higgs averaged 17.5 minutes a game and 8.1 points.
“We know what they can do, but now everybody else knows what they can do,” McCarty said. “I just feel like they were ready when their number was called.”
Higgs’ and Sutton’s contributions varied throughout the season. Sometimes Higgs played less than 15 minutes, other times she played more than 20. Sometimes Sutton played less than 10 minutes, a few times she played more than 20. Sometimes Higgs scored five points. Nine times she scored 10 or more. Sometimes Sutton scored no points. Once she scored 10.
Their roles changed. Their confidence didn’t. And it didn’t change in a game that was as important as it was exhilarating.
“In situations like that, you just have to be as calm as possible,” Higgs said. “Because if you have any type of nervousness in you at all, it will affect you in some way.”
After the game, Sutton admitted that she wasn’t feeling as confident as she usually is. North Carolina State played off of her in the perimeter by more than four feet, content at letting her shoot since she has shot 34 percent for the year.
She reminded herself she’s a shooter and then let it fly and was 50 percent from the field Sunday.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous,” Sutton said. “My adrenaline was going and playing in the environment it was crazy.”
On Friday, Texas will play the winner of Monday night’s Stanford-Kansas State game in a Lexington regional semifinal; either a two-seed or a seven-seed. It won’t be easy, but it never is.
“Going forward, it’s going to be a dogfight, and you just have to be mentally tough, whether it’s the bench or the starters,” Higgs said.
Still, there’s time for play. After Sunday’s win, the Longhorns sat around their locker room, eating snacks, doing interviews and talking. And playing another game.
Suddenly, Sutton spoke up.
“I spy something blue,” she said.
Her teammates couldn’t guess what it was. That water bottle? No. That cooler? No. That sweater? No.
But here’s something you do spy in that locker room. You don’t just spy a happy team. Or a confident team. You spy a deep team, one that could be poised for a deep run.