AUSTIN, Texas — For the majority of players on the Texas women's basketball team, as well as first-year head coach Vic Schaefer, Sunday will mark the first time they will have gone toe-to-toe against Baylor, currently ranked No. 7 in the nation by the Associated Press.
Schaefer faced the Lady Bears in the 2017 Elite Eight while coaching Mississippi State, but never has gone up against Baylor in conference play, nor has he ever taken a team into Waco, a place where Baylor coach Kim Mulkey's squad is 8-1 this season.
In addition, Baylor has won the last eight meetings between the two programs, yet Schaefer said he is not concerned with the recent track record and does not feel that the moment will be too big for his inexperienced team. After all, rivalry or not, Schaefer noted, shouldn't his team simply be excited to play?
"I think our kids, if they're like our staff, are on to the next one," Schaefer said. "You can't get too high after a win, which is what I've been trying to tell them the last day or so. You can't get too low after a loss — you got to learn from your mistakes. How do you 'get up' for the big game? If you don't get excited to play every night, come on. You only have 'X' number of these in your career.
"We'll have them prepared like we always do. We got to go in there and execute."
By Schaefer's definition of being a part of a rivalry, only three members of last year's squad — sophomore guard Celeste Taylor, junior forward Audrey Warren and junior forward/center Charli Collier — have actually gone up against Baylor. Junior guard Joanne Allen-Taylor rarely got on the floor last season, redshirt sophomore guard Karisma Ortiz was ineligible due to transfer rules, and the rest of this year's team was either still in high school, or in the eastern United States — center Lauren Ebooks played at Penn State, guard Kyra Lambert at Duke.
"We've got a few of them that have been a part of [the rivalry]," Schaefer said. "How big of a part just depends on what season it was. You're hardly a part of it if you're just sitting there on the bench. You're a part of it when you're in the fray, when you're in the fight."
In UT's' last meeting with Baylor in Waco, a 69-53 loss in March 2020, Collier and Taylor both started but combined for just nine points. Warren came off the bench with a team-high 10 points and Allen-Taylor did receive 14 minutes of action.
One of those who never has experienced the Baylor-Texas rivalry is starting point guard Lambert, a Duke graduate transfer who has played several times in a similar high-stakes rivalry; Duke-North Carolina.
Lambert said that alhough it may not receive the amount of press that the men's version of the game does, Duke-Carolina is the largest in the state of North Carolina and means more to those playing in the game than perhaps any other game on the schedule.
"It's a brawl," Lambert said. "On the court, it doesn't matter how well each team was doing that season, whether they were undefeated or having a 'down year' — that game was always going to be close. I've been in games that went into overtime, where buzzer-beaters were hit, the stands are filled with Duke blue, Carolina blue. Leading up into that game, everybody has to pick a team."
Texas-Baylor has a similar feel, though it has been largely one-sided in terms of success in the past decade.
"Well two things," Schaefer said when asked to explain Baylor's dominance in the Big 12. "One, they [have] got great players and two, they got a Hall of Fame coach." Mulkey was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in April 2020.
While they might be at rival schools, Schaefer said he and Mulkey share a good relationship.
"I have a good relationship with Kim," said Schaefer. "I checked on her when she was sick and had Covid, and I checked on her kids when they got hurt back in October. We went against them when I was at Mississippi State and obviously we had some knock-down, drag-outs when I was at [Texas A&M] and we were in the Big 12 back then."
The Longhorns must find a way to guard Baylor's post duo of Queen Ego and NaLyssa Smith. Schaefer is confident in Collier, but added that she can't do the job alone.
"I think that's where it starts for them," Schaefer said of Baylor's inside presence. "We'll have to do a good job of handling them. I can't tell you how many games they've been singled, doubled, fronted — they've seen it all. I think what makes them so unique is they are intelligent. They know where the double comes from. They are just too talented to deal with. You let them get it low, low, you're in trouble."
One thing to note heading into the contest is the winter weather central Texas could lead to a change in game time.
"I haven't really had too much conversation with [athletic director Chris Del Conte]," Schaefer said. "I'm sure we'll keep an eye on it. I'm always concerned about the weather, whether I'm flying or in a bus. It's going to be bitterly cold on Sunday, as you know. The highways around here are not good. We'll keep an eye on it for sure."
The contest is set to tip off at 4 p.m. Sunday and will be carried on ESPN2.