Texas' Aliyah Matharu settles into her role for Longhorns in NCAA Tournament
This month, Texas junior Aliyah Matharu is finally getting to experience March's madness.
Two seasons ago, she was a freshman guard on a Mississippi State team that was a contender for the national championship. The pandemic, however, wiped out that year's NCAA Tournament. One year later, the Bulldogs weren't good enough to receive an invitation to college basketball's year-end dance.
Matharu is now a key contributor at No. 6 Texas (26-6), a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Women's Tournament. The Longhorns will open Friday against Fairfield (25-6).
"I'm excited, but I'm just trying to stay calm," Matharu said. "I know if I get too excited, I won't do too well."
Throughout much of the season, Matharu has been Texas' leading scorer. She's averaging 12.5 points and is responsible for 45.8% of UT's 155 made 3-pointers. Matharu has put up 27-, 26- and 17-point performances against Tennessee, Texas A&M and Stanford teams that were Nos. 16, 17 and 3 at the time.
Over his 17 years as a head coach at Sam Houston State, Mississippi State and Texas, Vic Schaefer has tutored hundreds of players. He associates the word "confidence" with two of them — Victoria Vivians, an All-American guard at Mississippi State who's now playing in the WNBA, and Matharu. That's it. That's the list.
"Aliyah Matharu is as confident as anyone I've ever coached," Schaefer has said. "Sometimes I have to reel that in a little bit because she thinks she can go against 6-6 and score sometimes and she never gets out of her hands."
At times this season, though, that confidence has been shaken. Matharu has started 11 times for Texas, but Schaefer has preferred to use her and Audrey Warren — who has logged 44 starts over her four years at Texas — off the bench.
Matharu has found playing time in that role. However, shooting slumps and foul trouble have sidelined her in some games. An eight-minute appearance against Texas Tech on Feb. 9 marked one of six conference games in which she played less than 20 minutes. Over the final three games of the regular season, Matharu missed 19 of the 28 shots she took.
"I'm not a big fan of sitting down," Matharu said. "Even if I'm not scoring, I want to be able to run up and down with them on the floor and play with my teammates. I kind of just got down on myself, and I dug myself into this little hole."
Matharu has often leaned on the advice of her mother. Brenda Matharu admittedly knows more about competitive swimming but has picked up the nuances of basketball. Aliyah Matharu told reporters earlier this season that her mom was her toughest critic when it came to missed free throws.
During UT's three-game losing streak earlier this year, Matharu fouled out against Oklahoma, and she was twice whistled for four fouls against Baylor. Her limited playing time in the aforementioned Texas Tech game also had to do with picking up three quick fouls.
One person she couldn't complain to? Her mother, who chuckled when recalling that "I told her the truth. How the hell are they going to play you if you foul out of the game?"
After Texas wrapped up its regular season with a 65-50 win over Oklahoma State on March 5, the players were give a couple of days off. Brenda Matharu advised her only child to use that time to write down what she needed to change and get better at. Aliyah Matharu did that and then got back into the gym.
That self-reflection has seemingly helped. At last week's Big 12 Tournament, Matharu didn't start in the quarterfinals, semifinals or championship game. However, she averaged 23.3 minutes in those contests. She was on the floor when the final buzzer rang in all three games.
In UT's tournament opener against Kansas State, Matharu knocked down five 3-pointers. As Texas battled Iowa State in the fourth quarter and overtime in the semifinals, she didn't leave the floor. And her 3-pointer squashed an attempted rally by Baylor in the tournament finale.
"She's a dog on the court," senior guard Joanne Allen-Taylor said. "It's amazing how good she is. Like people don't even know, like, she hasn't reached her ceiling."
Matharu grew up in Washington, just a few miles away from the monuments and the Capitol. When she started playing basketball, Matharu didn't feel comfortable practicing inside her neighborhood's rec center. So her mother would take her in the early mornings to a park and shine her headlights on the outdoor court so her daughter could shoot jumpers and free throws.
"I learned how to shoot on a double rim," Matharu said.
In high school, Matharu was rated by ESPN HoopGurlz as the No. 28 recruit in the country in the Class of 2019. She wanted to play at Temple and visited Georgetown, Syracuse and Wake Forest. But after she took a visit to Mississippi State, Matharu committed to Schaefer because "it felt like a place where you wanted to be."
Schaefer left for Texas a year later, but Matharu stayed in Starkville. After averaging 10.2 points last season, she entered the transfer portal. Matharu originally eyed a move to Georgia but didn't want to wait for the uncertainty on the Lady Bulldogs' roster to clear up. She eventually opted for the familiarity of Schaefer.
"I feel like he knows what I'm capable of," Matharu said. "Sometimes I don't see it right in the moment and I get frustrated because he doesn't let me do everything I want to do. But that's not how you play basketball. I'm being pushed every day, I'm uncomfortable, but I know that I'm getting better."
Matharu added that "my mom, she loves Coach Schaefer." Brenda Matharu said that she appreciates Schaefer's work ethic and described him as honest and disciplined. "We can talk eye-to-eye about things that are good and not so good," she said.
When she got to Texas, Aliyah Matharu was one of eight newcomers on the roster. A freshman who shared her name and initials — "They just call her Aliyah and I'm A-Mo," explained forward Aaliyah Moore — was one of her new teammates.
Matharu describes herself as a "tough cookie," but she quickly fit in with the Longhorns. A team dinner in which everyone talked about their basketball goals helped.
The basketball goals at UT now center on the NCAA Tournament. The Big 12 champions have won 11 straight games.
"Nothing was given to us; nobody handed us anything," Matharu said. "It's a blessing to be where we are as a unit. I wouldn't rather go to war with another group of girls. I'm happy to be here and have the opportunity."