- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Longhorns were a bit of a surprise to reach the Sweet 16 last year. This year they expect nothing less and hope for a whole lot more.

The fourth season in coach Karen Aston’s rebuilding project saw Texas cruise through most of the regular season - three tough losses to Big 12 rival Baylor notwithstanding - as the program continues its march back to be among the nation’s elite programs.

And with that comes the expectation of postseason success, starting Saturday night when the No. 2 seed Longhorns (28-4) play No. 15 Alabama State (19-11) in the first round of the Bridgeport Regional. Also playing Saturday are No. 7 BYU (26-6) and No. 10 Missouri (21-9) with the winners meeting Monday night for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Austin was just another of Aston’s long-range goals when she took over the program in 2012.

“We did all this work to play in front of our fans,” Aston said. “We lost one game this year in the Erwin Center. We want everybody to come out.”

Aston took over after Gail Goestenkors, who had come to Austin after 15 very successful years at Duke, abruptly resigned with two years left on a seven-year contract. Aston’s first year in the rebuilding project was a complete teardown and the Longhorns finished 12-18. They’ve had at least 22 wins each of the last three seasons.

Texas started 16-0 this season and if not for the trouble with Baylor could have made a case for a No. 1 seed. And for a handful of Texas seniors, their rebuilding project ends with this tournament.

“When I first came, my goal was to get the program back where it needed to be,” guard Empress Davenport said. “The seniors take pride in putting in the hard work to get the program back to where it needs to be. “

The Longhorns enter the tournament with their highest seed since 2004, when Texas was a No. 1. The program has made the tournament nine times since then but made it out of the first two rounds just once. The last time Texas hosted was in 2010, when the Longhorns were upset in the first round.

Alabama State is making its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament. It was a strong finish after a 2-9 start on the season and the Lady Hornets have no intention of getting swept away in a mismatch.

“It gives us an opportunity to knock off the No. 2 seed in their gym,” Alabama State coach Freda Freeman-Jackson said. “We won 15 of last 17 games. Our girls are confident. They are going go play hard. We’re prepared.”

TOURNAMENT TIDBITS:

GETTING PHYSICAL: BYU started 2-3 but ripped through the West Coast Conference regular season before an upset loss in the league tournament final. Cougars players say they expect a physical matchup with Missouri, a style they didn’t handle well in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss last season.

“The NCAA Tournament is more intense, more physical so we need to learn from that experience to be ready for this game,” BYU senior guard Lexi Rydalch said.

BYU seldom faced that sort of physical matchup in the WCC. But they had an early-season win over SEC power Texas A&M;, and Missouri coach Robin Pingeton noted BYU pushed the Aggies around in that win.

“They dominated them … I was impressed,” Pingeton said.

LIVE MUSIC CAPITAL OF THE WORLD: That’s the Austin motto and the NCAA regional landed smack in the middle of the South by Southwest Musical Festival, which takes over most of downtown. BYU coach Jeff Judkins planned to let his team walk around to check out the sights and sounds after Friday’s early practice.

“I want my girls to experience this town. When I played in the NBA, I didn’t sit in the hotel room on game day. I went and did some sight-seeing,” Judkins said.

Pingeton plans a different approach for Missouri

“I don’t know you really want to be out and about,” Pingeton said. “We’ll watch film … We’ll stay pretty dialed in.”

MISSOURI REBOOT: The Tigers needed one after their season ended with a three-game losing streak. So Pingeton gave them five days off after their first-round loss in the SEC tournament, something she admits was out of her comfort zone.

“But I felt like we needed to do it and ever since we’ve come back we’ve looked really strong, really explosive, re-energized and refocused,” Pingeton said.

BIG-TIME BOYETTE: Texas senior center Imani Boyette is the first player in program history with 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocks.

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