When it was over, TCU women’s basketball coach Mark Campbell gathered his players on the court in Fort Worth Tuesday night to savor a victory so improbable they’re likely to remember it for the rest of their lives. 

In normal times, a 66–60 defeat of a University of Central Florida team that has yet to win a Big 12 game this season would be just another brick in the wall on the journey to March Madness. That would be especially true for a TCU team that entered 2024 with a 14–0 record and a number 23 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25. That fast start was all the more remarkable considering the Horned Frogs had been 14–45 over the previous two seasons, before Campbell arrived from Sacramento State.

“I think we were one of the top fifteen to twenty teams in college basketball,” Campbell told me Wednesday. Then, over the last few weeks, injuries cost the Horned Frogs four of their best players, including leading scorers Sedona Prince and Madison Conner, starting point guard Jaden Owens, and forward DaiJa Turner.

Turner announced on social media that she has already undergone season-ending surgery, Owens and Prince will probably miss the rest of the season, and there’s no timetable for Conner’s return. Three more players from TCU’s roster were out with injuries, and another left the team to attend to a family issue. For a few days last week, TCU was down to six healthy scholarship players. The team had seven for Tuesday’s game against UCF.

At a news conference after the UCF win, Campbell told reporters: “The reality is you can’t live in the past. We got games that we got to prepare for. We got kids we got to coach right here right now. Our job is to make the best of the hand you get dealt and think, ‘Gosh dang it, that’s life.’

“You’re gonna have adversity and curveballs that you didn’t see coming in life,” he said. “This is great for young people to see. You still show up, you roll your sleeves up, and you get to work. You can’t put your head down.”

From such situations come the very thing we love most about sports: the art of the possible. Last week, TCU forfeited games against Kansas State and Iowa State as Campbell came up with a plan to replenish his roster. Because overstocked powerhouse teams like South Carolina and LSU were not about to loan TCU some reinforcements, Campbell sent out a campus-wide invite for walk-on players to try out for the women’s basketball team.

Fifty hopefuls showed up last week for two-hour sessions in which coaches evaluated them on the basics: dribbling, shooting, passing, conditioning. Campbell picked four new players, including TCU women’s volleyball player Sarah Sylvester. He and assistant coach Xavier Lopez worked long hours to install a guard-oriented, perimeter offense that would take advantage of TCU’s remaining healthy players.

The Horned Frogs then did something remarkable on Tuesday, matching their season high of 27 first-quarter points and jumping out to an early 16-point lead over UCF. Even after they came down to earth and fell behind 56–51 in the fourth quarter, TCU finished strong, rallying to score the final 9 points of the game and secure a victory.

“We couldn’t play five-on-five,” Campbell told me. “We didn’t have enough kids. And so we played three-on-three and worked on our actions and installed a new offense. These kids truly trusted our staff that we’d put them in a good position. At this point, we’ve been in the trenches a long time together, and I think there’s been a lot of trust built with the players and the staff.

“It’s not like we had a training camp to do this,” Campbell added. “How do we figure out something that these kids can pick up after a couple of practices? Can we get this installed? Will it work? It was a fascinating experiment. This was a testament to these kids.”

Point guard Victoria Flores scored the basket that put TCU ahead for good with one minute and eighteen seconds remaining in the game, then stole a pass that sealed the win. She was elevated into a starting role for Tuesday’s game and had missed a layup moments before her go-ahead bucket. When the ball came to her again, she did not hesitate to take the open shot. Guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu—Campbell calls her the “heart and soul” of the team—made four foul shots in the final eighteen seconds to keep TCU ahead.

After the game, Campbell brought the players together on the court. “You just want to gather them because those moments don’t come along very often,” he said. “And I’m just beyond proud of the fight, the spirit, the resiliency that our team showed. I just took that opportunity really quick to huddle up and tell them how proud I am of them. And we got more work to do.

“Adversity reveals character,” Campbell said, “and I let the group know: We got a whole lot of character and a whole lot of fight. And it’s been just a really unique, tough two weeks. We got dealt a tough hand, and the kids overcame it.”

Campbell pushed his healthy players hard against UCF, with four of his five starters playing at least 34 of 40 minutes. Forward Aaliyah Roberson scored seventeen points in her fourth start of the season. Flores and another guard, Tara Manumaleuga, made their first starts of the season.

“I’m just beyond proud,” Campbell said at the postgame press conference. “This group showed their resilience and showed their character. These youngsters, man, that’s why you never underestimate young people. You pour your heart and soul into this thing. And the kids pour their heart and soul into this thing. And you don’t always get rewarded in life for your hard work.”

Against UCF, Campbell used only one of his new walk-ons, Sylvester, who only saw the floor for a minute. But she got the loudest ovation of the game when she stepped onto the floor. “It’s just kind of an unreal feeling,” Sylvester said. “You never expect those type of things—when a whole arena erupts for you. I’m so grateful for that. It’s a special moment for me to hold on to for the rest of my career and life.”

Sylvester said she thought she had given up basketball for good when she made the decision to focus on volleyball. But when the tryout invitation popped up on her phone last week, her volleyball teammates encouraged her to give it a try.

“It started out as kind of a joke,” she said. But when she floated the idea to TCU volleyball coach Jason Williams, he didn’t discourage her from going for it. He even accompanied her to the tryout. “It’s been a little tricky getting back into the flow of things,” Sylvester said, “but everyone’s super supportive. It’s really an exciting opportunity. Any opportunity I have to help any other team I’d take in a heartbeat. Basketball is super special to me.” As guard Emma-Nnopu said: “It just shows how much of a community it is, that everyone wants to support and help each other.”

Even though Campbell only kept four walk-on players from last week’s emergency tryouts, he seemed touched by the overwhelming turnout for the trials. “It’s a dream come true for them to have an opportunity to go play college basketball in the Big 12,” he said. “You wish you could take all of them. I mean, it was really neat. It’s just a healthy reminder of how special it is to do what we do as coaches. And for the players that are currently on our team, it was a healthy reminder to not lose sight of how unique and special it is to play for TCU and to play at this level. It’s been neat to see what TCU stands for and how the student body and the community has rallied around this group. We’re like America’s team right now.”

Incredibly, he found players with impressive basketball credentials. Sylvester earned back-to-back All-Catholic league honors as a junior and senior at Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Piper Davis was a starting point guard on a 5A state champion high school team in Boise, Idaho. Guard Ella Hamlin scored more than 1,500 points during a four-year varsity career at Granbury High, about forty miles southwest of Fort Worth, and Mekhayia Moore starred on a state championship team at Brownsboro High, in East Texas.

Some of the injured players will return this season. For now, though, as Campbell said: “Oh, it’s all hands on deck with our season. They’re ready.”

He described walk-throughs in which the new players learned TCU’s playbook: baseline and sideline out-of-bounds plays, along with other basic aspects of the Horned Frogs’ offense that are usually second nature for players at this point in a season. “M.C. [Campbell] always says we have a bunch of soldiers,” forward Aaliyah Roberson said. “That’s what he recruits and that’s what he instills in us. We’re just going to go out there and battle, no matter who our opponent is or what we’re going through.”

Campbell arrived at TCU this season after engineering a turnaround at Sacramento State’s women’s basketball program—from 3 victories the season before he took over, in 2021–22, to 25 victories and the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance last season. Before that, Campbell worked as an assistant coach at Oregon, where he gained a reputation as a standout recruiter.

He jumped at the chance to coach at TCU, where the football team reached the national championship game after the 2022 season, the baseball team went to the College World Series in 2023, and the men’s basketball team has become a fixture in the AP Top 25. “You’re talking about a high academic institution that has incredible resources and an amazing infrastructure for student athletes, which is why across the board TCU has had success in darn near every sport,” Campbell said. “I thought we could build one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. And then you got a community that loves their Horned Frogs. It truly checked every box.”

He overhauled the Horned Frogs roster with six transfers, four of whom won spots in the starting lineup. And then, just when TCU rattled off fourteen wins to begin the season and looked like one of the best stories in college basketball, it became an even better story for a very different reason.

“We wanted to stick together,” Emma-Nnopu said. “M.C. says [in] the journey of the season there’s always going to be injuries—obviously probably not to this capacity. For us, we’re playing small ball, having five people on the court who are all just shooting guards, scoring guards. Just having that mindset [that] you’ve got to go out there and make a play.”

As the injured players return to the roster, TCU could still be a factor in March. “Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to just keep adding players back to our rotation,” Campbell said. “And I told the team we can keep getting better during this stretch, win or lose. If we keep getting better defensively, if we keep getting better with our rebounding habits as we keep adding talent back, we got a chance to be one heck of a ball club down the home stretch.”

Regardless, he won’t forget Tuesday’s shorthanded win over UCF. “You’re in practice with these kids and battling with these kids,” he said. “They have a tremendous spirit. Our word we wrote on the board is to be fearless. That was the one word that we had up at the top of our whiteboard before the game, and to come out swinging and come out fearless and to be an incredibly tight unit, gosh dang it, they did that.”