Familiar coaching foes face off when women’s basketball takes on South Carolina

Sophomore point guard Zia Cooke leads the No. 1 seeded South Carolina Gamecocks in scoring this season, with an average of 15.6 points per game (photo courtesy of gamecocksonline.com).

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Six years, two knee surgeries and one transfer later, everything seems to be coming full circle for Texas point guard Kyra Lambert as the Longhorns enter the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and a matchup against No. 1 seed South Carolina.

The matchup will tip off at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Alamodome, and can be seen on ESPN. The winner will face the victor in Tuesday's Alamo Regional Final between No. 1 seed Stanford and No. 2 seed Louisville.

A native of San Antonio, Lambert has emerged as one of UT's most consistent shooters during the Horns' NCAA Tournament run in her home city, scoring 25 points through three games and coming up with a big layup to seal a 64-61 victory over Maryland in the Sweet Sixteen.

"Honestly this is a story that I couldn't write, I couldn't imagine," Lambert said Monday. "It is tangible evidence of how good God is."

Lambert's journey began as the nation's No. 9 recruit, according to ESPN.com, in the class of 2015. Playing for the Duke Blue Devils tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament against Hampton University. After missing her entire junior year while recovering from surgery, she failed to take the court as a senior after she tore her ACL in the preseason.

After a second ACL surgery, and 962 days following her last game, Lambert suited up for Duke in the first game of the 2019-20 season. She averaged 5.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, and then transferred to Texas for her final year of college basketball during the summer. Texas head coach Vic Schaefer, entering his first year on the Forty Acres, could not have been happy to have Lambert leading his squad.

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"First of all, it's really special," Schaefer said, "to be away five years, to go through what that kid had to go through with her injuries and be all the way out on the east coast, to come back home where her family can see her play. This is a kid whose played 37 minutes a game for us. I'd hate to think where we'd be without her."

Schaefer praised Lambert Monday for her quick adjustment to a new system after transferring and for her leadership, especially in recent games.

"You're talking about a player that's been in a completely different system for five years — a successful one, but one that's really different," Schaefer said. "For her to be able to come here, she'd probably be the first to tell you that we butted heads a couple of time during those first couple months. It's just a matter of her embracing the change. I would love to have had her for four years."

Although her assist-to-turnover ratio has been close to 5-to-1 over the last six games, Schaefer said Lambert is focused on limiting turnovers after tallying three against Maryland.

"She's such a perfectionist, she's ecstatic we won, but she's mad she had three turnovers and missed a couple of free throws," Schaefer said. "That's what you want. I'm striving for perfection every day. I want (the team) to practice perfect, I want to play perfect."

Lambert said she is aware that each time she steps on to the floor it could be her last. In her sixth season of college basketball, and with limited professional opportunities, she is focused on "staying present." That mentality will be critical against the Gamecocks as the Horns attempt to pull off their third upset of the tournament Tuesday night.

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"Honestly right now, I'm not looking at the next stage of my life. I'm just trying to stay present," Lambert said, "trying to tell this team, 'We have to stay present, we have to stay in the moment and just take it one game, one possession at a time. These are the things you remember for the rest of your life.'"

Will the countdown continue?
Texas' NCAA Tournament run could be summed up by three numbers: 3, 2, 1.

The Longhorns have already defeated the Hemisfair regions' 3 and 2 seeds in wins over UCLA and Maryland, respectively, but No. 1 seed South Carolina still stands unconquered.

While the two opponents have met just three times, with Texas leading the all-time series, 2-1, the coaching matchup is not an uncommon one.

With Schaefer leading Mississippi State from 2012-20, and Dawn Staley having head coached at South Carolina since 2008, the two competed frequently while establishing perennial Southeastern Conference powerhouses. In fact, in the 2017 national title game, it was an SEC showdown between Schaefer's Bulldogs and Staley's Gamecocks. South Carolina earned the 67-55 win, though the two met seven more times through last before Schaefer took the job in Austin.

Now, it will be Schaefer vs. Staley once again, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

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"The good news is I don't have to play against her one on one, because I don't think I'd do very well," Schaefer said. "We've obviously had some great battles over the years and [my staff and I] have a lot of respect and admiration for them. There is some familiarity there. Obviously, we've played each other in some very big games, had some very big moments. They've had some success. We've had some success. It's something that's been going on for a while now."

South Carolina rolled through its first three tournament games, and unlike Texas, entered each as the overwhelming favorite. The Gamecocks took down No. 16 seed Mercer, 79-53, to open the tournament, before besting No. 8 seed Oregon State, 59-42, and No. 5 seed Georgia Tech, 76-65. They are led by a duo of sophomores in guard Zia Cooke and forward Aliyah Boston. Cooke leads the team in scoring with 15.6 points per game, and Boston is a force in the post, averaging a double-double with 13.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per contest.

The matchup to watch entering the Elite Eight showdown pits Boston against Texas center Charli Collier, projected by ESPN as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft. Collier is also a double-double machine who entered the tournament averaging 20.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. After having a quiet scoring night against UCLA with just five points, Collier rebounded to counter Maryland's potent offense Sunday with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

"Those are two of the premier players in the country, regardless of position," Schaefer said. "I'm glad I've got Charli on my team. We'll give her some good advice on trying to deal with Aliyah, because she's obviously very special and hard to deal with.

"I know Charli will be excited about the challenge and we'll make sure we do everything we can to put her in a position to be successful, just as I know Dawn will with Aliyah."

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