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Bohls: Texas' Vic Schaefer transformed a fifth-place Big 12 team into an Elite Eight squad

Texas head coach Vic Schaefer comforts senior point guard Kyra Lambert in her final game as a Longhorn after Tuesday night's loss to South Carolina in the Elite Eight. "It's a new program, new culture, new everything, new players," said Lambert, who joined UT as a graduate transfer from Duke. "We're exactly where we wanted to be.”
  • Vic Schaefer hadn't been on campus a full 12 months, but molded Texas into an Elite Eight club.
  • Grad transfer point guard Kyra Lambert called Longhorns' rise and improvement "astronomical."
  • Three McDonald's All-Americans pace No. 3 national recruiting class for Texas.

Vic Schaefer’s first season at Texas didn’t end as he thought it might.

But it didn’t start like he imagined, either.

In reality, he was probably never under any illusions at the outset that he’d be the last coach to climb a ladder at the Alamodome and cut the last stitch of netting after the year’s final women’s college basketball game. But he also probably didn’t truthfully envision a loss to No. 1 seed South Carolina in the Elite Eight.

Not really.

Oh, he wanted it to end in such spectacular fashion. Wanted to will it to happen if it was within his power.

But what were the odds?

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After all, he had been to three straight Elite Eights, knocked off UConn and reached back-to-back national championship games as he created a powerhouse at Mississippi State and made it one of the most respected programs in the country, but none of his new players had that kind of taste of postseason. 

And did you notice Mississippi State declined to even play in the WNIT and has had six players transfer out? Wondering if any know the directions to Austin.

But Schaefer didn’t expect his inaugural season to begin in such fractured fashion,  either. Not with a lineup that had only a couple of players who’d averaged even 20 minutes the previous season. Not with an offensively challenged roster that often couldn’t find the basket. Not with a pandemic that curtailed practice, threatened the health of everyone in the program, prevented Schaefer and his assistants from bonding in person with their players as quickly as they wanted, and severely hampered offseason workouts.

PHOTOS:South Carolina 62, Texas 34: Thumped in Elite 8, Longhorns look ahead to future

South Carolina's Zia Cooke saves the ball from going out of bounds during the second half of Tuesday night's Elite Eight. The top-seeded Gamecocks advanced to the Final Four.

Offseason? What offseason? Heck, Schaefer’s been discouraged from even showing up at his office as a health safeguard. Then came a rare ice storm in Austin when he watched game tape in his car in the parking lot of a pizza joint. 

Eleven months ago, Schaefer brought his unbridled optimism, his relentless work ethic and his upbeat philosophy grounded in defense and fundamentals to Austin, the place where he took his first breaths some 60 years ago.

Less than a full year later, he had Texas in the Elite Eight. He was bursting with pride in a team that had gone an unlikely 21-10 and come within a single victory of the school’s first Final Four in 18 seasons. Think of that for a minute.

"Vic's as good as advertised," athletic director Chris Del Conte said. "And he's an even better person."

But neither did Schaefer think it was probably going to even end in San Antonio at all with a somber team trudging off the court in crushing disappointment, but after an Elite Eight game. Despite their heartbreak, they knew they’d already done the unthinkable and knocked off third-seeded UCLA and followed that by stunning Maryland, a two-seed scoring machine that was averaging 92 points a game.

Texas guard Celeste Taylor drives but misses the basket during the second half Tuesday night. The Longhorns shot a season-low 23% from the field in the 62-34 loss.

But Texas did all that. It grew exponentially or “astronomically,” as point guard and Duke transfer Kyra Lambert put it Tuesday night.

Fifth in its own conference.

Final eight in the country.

That’s progress. Meaningful, substantial, undeniable progress.

“I wasn't hired to bring a top-25 team to Austin,” the plain-talking Schaefer said. “I was hired to bring a top-10 program to our university. Big difference. Teams (ranked) No. 14 through 25, that group is fluid every year. They're in, they're out.”

But he said when the preseason poll is released in October, he wants Texas fans to immediately check out the top 10 and expect to find the Longhorns there. Next year. Every year. That’s where the true perennial contenders reside.

He’ll need to develop more shooters, add some depth, build up the front court and blend in more consistent offense with what will always be one of the game’s best defensive teams. He’s got a strong nucleus in rapidly improving guards Joanne Allen-Taylor and Celeste Taylor and a sell-out defender Audrey Warren and possibly post player Lauren Ebo. Better yet, he’s established a mindset that he will not compromise.

“This is Texas,” Schaefer said emphatically, “and we’ll be back. And back and back and back.”

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Texas guard Celeste Taylor and South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston battle for a rebound during the second half of the Gamecocks' Elite Eight victory.

On Tuesday, Schaefer’s flawed but fearless team had one of the ugliest quarters ever to cap off an otherwise terrific run, a scoreless fourth quarter — that’s right, zero points in the entire period and a drought that extended 12 1/2 painful minutes — in a 62-34 loss that obscured one of the most impressive streaks that women’s college basketball had ever seen.

But for a brilliant performance by a highly skilled, balanced, defensively gritty South Carolina team, the Longhorns might have become the first team to ever advance to a Final Four with wins over 1, 2 and 3 seeds. They pulled off two of the three. However, Texas was no match for Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks, who streaked to an 18-7 first-quarter lead and never let up. The numbers weren’t pretty.

Texas sank a season-low 23% of its shots. A full 14 of them were blocked by the taller, longer Gamecocks. The Longhorns connected on just three of 15 bombs. All-American Charli Collier was held in check with four points.

This was the big stage, and Texas was not quite ready for that steep a challenge.

Quite frankly, the Longhorns lost to a better team. But don’t expect that trend to continue.

“We got to get some things fixed,” Schaefer said, "and we're not fixed right now in my mind. We've got some things to address, and we'll address them. And then we'll move on.”

How long will it take for Schaefer to get where he wants to go with three McDonald’s All-Americans and a stud junior-college player enrolling before next season?

“It won't take long at all,” Lambert said. “This is one of the biggest reasons I chose to come to Texas and play for coach Schaefer and his staff. The one thing he told me that just stood out so much in my recruiting process was, ‘We're not going to wait to win.’ It's a new program, new culture, new everything, new players. We're exactly where we wanted to be.”

Lambert won’t return next season. Neither will Collier, a junior who's leaving for the WNBA after an All-American season marred only by some off nights against better teams like Baylor and South Carolina.

But nearly everyone else could return. They’ll be joined by five players, including a dynamic backcourt that highlights the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class.

“Nobody picked us, nobody chose us, nobody thought we were going to be in this position,” Lambert said. “Here we are in an Elite Eight. New program, new coaching staff, new team, everything. So, no, it won't take this program long. They’ll remember this feeling. They’re going to build off this, be better for it. Texas is being talked about right now.”

Is it ever.

But now they’re more than talk. Because they can back it up.