COLUMBIA, S.C.—For most top-tier freshmen, there comes a time when their team looks to them to step up and put their mark on a big-game situation. Sunday afternoon, Duke freshman Kyra Lambert did all she could to keep the Blue Devils afloat, but it was not enough.

Just nine games into her Blue Devil career, the 5-foot-9 point guard has already proven that she can be a sparkplug for her team’s offense. In a 66-55 loss to No. 2 South Carolina at Colonial Life Arena, Lambert set the tone early, draining back-to-back 3-pointers for six of No. 14 Duke’s first ten points of the contest. She finished as the leading scorer for the Blue Devils, notching a career-high 16 points on an efficient 6-of-9 shooting along with one assist and just one turnover against an aggressive Gamecock defense.

“Whenever you make your first two shots, of course you are going to be feeling really good,” Lambert said. “We were just trying to run the offense and when looks come, you take them.”

The outburst came at just the right time for Duke, as its two leading scorers—sophomore Azurá Stevens and redshirt sophomore Rebecca Greenwell—were held to a combined 15 points. South Carolina utilized a gritty man-to-man scheme that kept the Blue Devil duo in check, forcing Greenwell and Stevens to shoot 5-for-20 for the game.

“Our main concern was making sure that we contained Stevens and Greenwell,” Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley said. “If you can get those two under control, you’re putting people in other positions in which they have to carry the team.”

Lambert certainly shouldered the load for a Duke squad that never really broke free of South Carolina’s grasp on the game. The Blue Devils led 50-49 midway through the final quarter before a string of turnovers allowed the Gamecocks to go on a 11-0 run that put the contest away.

Although mistakes late in the game were certainly costly for Duke, its 15 turnovers were below a season average of nearly 19 per game entering Sunday. Lambert and her fellow backcourt mate, freshman Angela Salvadores, played a major role in cutting back on the giveaways that have often plagued this year's team—the pair combined for four—but the Blue Devils could not get on the same page in the final five minutes.

“I like our guards and I like our guard play,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I don’t think that we should ever turn the ball over, to be honest. If you are locked in to your teammates and what you’re doing, you will not turn the ball over. That’s the thing—you’ve got to be locked in.”

In front of 16,429 raucous fans, the pressure was bigger than ever for Lambert, a member of Duke’s top-ranked recruiting class. But the stage did not seem to bother the Cibolo, Texas, native.

“It doesn’t really matter the crowd, whether it is big or small,” Lambert said. “I just came out there and tried to play Duke basketball.”

Her penetrating drives were critical in opening shooting lanes for Stevens and junior Oderah Chidom, who posted 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting on the afternoon in addition to eight rebounds. With the outcome already decided, Lambert added a late 3-pointer with just 10 seconds remaining to finish 3-of-4 from downtown.

Although the Gamecocks once again proved to be too much for the Blue Devils Sunday, Staley, a women’s basketball icon with three gold medals and two National Player of the Year awards to her name, saw the promise that lies ahead for Lambert and the rest of Duke’s young backcourt.

“[Duke’s] guards are good and when they continue to grow up, they are going to be hard to guard and pressure,” Staley said. “I just don’t think they’re experienced enough to [lead their team] at this stage, but they’ll get better and better.”
Despite losing their second game against a ranked opponent, the Blue Devils flashed their potential in Columbia. Lambert’s career effort kept Duke in the game for more than 35 minutes in what was very much a back-and-forth affair that saw the score tied for nearly 10 minutes.

Although the growing pains of a relatively young team have shown themselves at the most inopportune times so far this season, Sunday’s loss was another step in the evolution of both Lambert's game and this Blue Devil team as a whole.

“[We need to] use it as an experience to build on the next [game],” Lambert said.