In October 2020, the Houston women’s basketball team found itself in a familiar situation: being picked to finish towards the bottom of the American Athletic Conference in the preseason poll.
The Cougars, who came into the 2020-21 season with only one winning record in six years under head coach Ronald Hughey, felt disrespected by their seventh-place prediction and took it personally.
“Coach Hughey was really upset about (being picked seventh) and that fire oozed out onto us,” freshman guard Laila Blair told reporters on a Zoom conference. “That was the main reason why we work so hard. Just to prove people wrong.”
This fire was on display early in the season as UH got off to its best start in years, going 5-1 which included two victories over major-conference opponents.
But on Jan. 20, the UH women’s basketball team suffered a major blow, losing senior guard Julia Blackshell-Fair to a torn ACL she suffered against Temple.
Not only were the Cougars losing a capable scorer, rebounder and defender, but more importantly, they were losing one of their most experienced players and biggest leaders.
Hughey understood how big a loss this was because of all Blackshell-Fair did for the team. He was not as worried about the loss of Blackshell-Fair’s scoring because of all the shooters on the roster but focused on the loss of her hustle plays and little things she did that often went unnoticed.
Hughey knew his team would have to step up and make the effort in plays if they were to step up and fill in Blackshell-Fair’s shoes.
“It didn’t require points. It required you doing everything else besides points,” Hughey said. “Rebounding, getting on the floor, high-fiving your teammate, picking people up, calming us down when we got rattled. When they started to buy into that, that’s when we started to see a different team.”
The team responded to this challenge and took it upon themselves to buy into this mindset, and brought so much intensity and effort every single practice that it even caught the attention of UH volleyball head coach David Rehr, who could hear the Cougars practicing all the way from the volleyball locker room in Fertitta Center.
“(Rehr) came running out and just started watching practice,” Hughey said. “He called me over and said ‘I just couldn’t believe how much energy you guys have on the floor. It’s so infectious.’”
As a result, all the work the team put in behind the scenes in practice started to translate to their product on the court in games.
The Cougars began to string together win after win, which culminated in a dominating victory over No. 13 USF last Saturday, marking UH’s seventh straight win, and its first victory over a ranked team since Dec. 18, 2010. The first against a top 13 team since the 2003-04 season.
This win over USF not only validated everything Hughey and his staff believed in and spent years building the UH women’s basketball program around, but it also strengthened the Cougars’ case to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2010-11 season.
“We’ve got a significant win (over USF). We’ve got some Power Five wins,” Hughey said. “We’ve got a winning streak because it’s all about the team that’s hot in February. We went undefeated in February. It’s time for the (AAC) to give us a little more respect because at the end of the day we’re coming to play.”
Blair echoed Hughey’s point, emphasizing that UH is definitely deserving of a ticket to the big dance in San Antonio, and how proud she is to see all the work she and her teammates put in on a daily basis finally start to get recognized.
“There’s definitely no greater feeling than to see our labor coming to fruition. (We’re) reaping what we sow,” Blair said. “We work for this. We work day in and day out in practice going hard.”
While the Cougars have proven that they should not be overlooked and are capable of competing against some of the nation’s top teams, Hughey and his team believe that there is still much more work to be done to climb up to the next rung on the ladder.
“I think we’re good right now and now we just trying to move it to elite,” Hughey said. “That was our theme all year. We wanted to move the needle.”