TCU, Mark Campbell will never have a more impressive win than UCF

TCU Athletics

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At just 43 years old, Mark Campbell’s career is nowhere near over.

TCU’s first-year head coach and his staff will go on to coach in vastly more pivotal games with higher stakes, conference titles and possibly national titles one day. He's coached some of the best in today's game like Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally to name a few. But no game will be as impressive of a job as Tuesday night’s 66-60 win over UCF.

A week ago, TCU had to forfeit back-to-back games against Kansas State and Iowa State due to a lack of player-availability. Jaden Owens, Sedona Prince, among others, were out due to various injuries and the program had no choice but to buy itself more time with the cancellations. Leading scorer Madison Conner was added to that injury list ahead of Tuesday night's game.

A team with no walk-ons to start the year had to rush and add players from its student-body to fill out a bench just to get to 11 players. TCU put out a call on social media that they were holding open tryouts. One student, out of the roughly 50 who tried out, had her basketball shoes overnight shipped according to Campbell.

A few days later, Sarah Sylvester, a star middle blocker for TCU volleyball who played basketball in high school, was added to the roster. On Monday, students Piper Davis, Ella Hamlin and Mekhayia Moore, each with varyingly successful basketball backgrounds in high school, made the team. Among them, two Texans: Hamlin, who Offensive MVP as a senior last season for 5A program Granbury and Moore, the 2022 4A state championship MVP for title-wining Brownsboro.

“The (tryouts) turnout was incredible, the spirit of the student body,” Campbell said. “These young ladies that showed up poured their hearts and souls into that trial and it's not like they're in a basketball shape. They just came from class and put on sneakers.”

But within a day of the newbies being added to the roster sheet, TCU had its first competitive game in over a week.

With sophomore Aaliyah Roberson as the only true healthy frontcourt player, Campbell and his staff scrapped TCU’s primary pick and roll-heavy offense overnight in favor of a 5-Out motion system that emphasized spacing and the team's shooting. But they lacked bodies in practice to drill it in practice, with the student walk-ons not able to practice yet. So they ran 4-on-4 during the week and walked through it. Tuesday night was the first time they’d ran anything live action in over a week, much less a scheme that Campbell had never run before. Roberson’s a stretch forward and the likes of freshman Jade Clack and Sydney Harris float at the perimeter meaning that TCU’s only option on offense was to shoot – a lot. They put up a season-high 27 points in the first period and finished the game with just 10 points in the paint. Roberson finished with a team-high 17 points.

“I think just for us playing small-ball and just having five people on the court who were all shooting threats, scoring threats and just being able to have that mindset that you got to go out and make a play,” Agnes Emma-Nnopu said who’s one of just two healthy original starters left.

Roberson had never started at center in college and never ran the middle of TCU’s zone defense. Freshman Victoria Flores started her first collegiate game at point guard and got the go-ahead layup off an on-ball steal in the waning seconds. TCU played just eight players, four of which finished with over 30 minutes and three players played most of the fourth period with four fouls.

“We're like America's team right now,” Campbell said jokingly about the social buzz the program received over the past week.

Sylvester was the lone newbie to get in during the third period when TCU’s available bigs got into foul trouble, playing just one minute. When she approached the scorer’s table to check in, Schollmaier Arena erupted. Sylvester hadn’t played basketball since high school two years ago at Marian High School in Michigan.

“I thought I was gearing up for the rest of my life so, it's just a really exciting opportunity for me,” Sylvester said. “…the Horned Frog family is so, so special and so important. So, any opportunity I could have to help any other team I take in a heartbeat.”

Although none of the three student walk-ons got in Tuesday night’s game make no mistake, they’re with the team for the long haul. None of them could practice because their class schedules aren’t oriented to be free during that time – that’ll get fixed. The staff also held a separate shootaround an hour before the team’s scheduled shootaround just to go over pregame shooting drills and TCU’s BLOB out-of-bounds sets with them.

“But it was really neat to see these kids that have a high IQ, they have a great competitive spirit. We got to get them in shape,” Campbell said. “Hopefully we can get their class schedule so they can practice with us. But they’re kids that played and they love the game of basketball and they're all in to help and so we're excited to work with them.”

TCU sits at 15-4. The two forfeits will only officially impact their Big 12 record which sits now at 2-6. Where the program goes from here on out feels unfair to judge harshly. After the team’s first conference loss to Baylor, Campbell said his team hadn’t gone through adversity yet and that that was something he was looking forward to overcoming. Fast-forward less than a month later and the team’s remade roster has overcome more than a season’s worth of obstacles.

“You don't always get rewarded in life for your hard work and so when you do, man, it's refreshing,” Campbell said.

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