Kyra Lambert returns for Duke nearly three years and three surgeries later

Duke's Kyra Lambert. (Mitchell Northam/High Post Hoops)
Duke's Kyra Lambert. (Mitchell Northam/High Post Hoops) /

An inspirational comeback, complete.

DURHAM, N.C. — It would be difficult to craft a script that’s better than how Kyra Lambert’s Tuesday night unfolded at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The last time that Lambert entered a competitive college basketball game was March 18, 2017. The Duke Blue Devils blew out the Hampton Pirates in a first round NCAA tournament game that day, but in the process, Lambert tore her ACL. Over the next two-plus years, she would have three knee surgeries.

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962 days had passed since Lambert had played for the Blue Devils, but finally, her chance at redemption arrived Tuesday evening. She laced up her white and black Nike’s, pulled on her white shorts and white No. 15 jersey, threw her hair in a pony tail and tied a blue Nike headband on. And then she pulled a bulky knee brace over her left leg.

With two minutes and 57 seconds remaining in the first quarter against the High Point Panthers, head coach Joanne P. McCallie turned to the oldest member of her team and gestured for her to enter the game. When Lambert stepped on the old hardwood at the 79-year-old arena, the crowd stood and roared. Some of them thought Lambert would never play basketball again. They knew what she had been through.

“I was just really excited to get out there with my team,” Lambert said. “It had been a long time coming. Today was amazing. Very emotional, but amazing.”

If Lambert was nervous, had any pregame jitters or was playing cautiously, it didn’t show. She went to work right away on defense, locking down a High Point ball-handler, eventually poking the rock away for her first of a team-high three steals on the evening. Lambert raced down to the other end of the court with possession and fired a no-look pass to Onome Akinbode-James, who should’ve connected on an easy lay-up, but the High Point defense closed in quicker than anticipated.

No matter. Lambert’s first point-producing play of the season would come soon. With just 2.7 seconds left in the first quarter, Lambert lowered her shoulder into a High Point player, stole an inbounds pass, took two dribbles and with two hands, heaved a 60-foot shot towards Duke’s basket as time expired.

Buzzer. Swish. Cheers.

Again, it’s impossible to make this up. Lambert’s first shot in nearly three years was a beyond-half-court buzzer-beater.

Duke won the game handily, 93-57, but no one will remember the score line of this game. They’ll recall it as the game where Lambert returned and hit *that* shot.

“Boy, the Gods of basketball are with Kyra, as they should be, forever be, based on the fact that she’s been out for so long,” McCallie said after the game. “I haven’t seen that – a 60-foot three made in the first quarter for somebody who hadn’t played in three years. Can everybody compute that?

“We want to talk about the team, but we have to pause on that one. That is quite a story… It was just an unforgettable moment.”

The graduate senior would play just a bit over eight minutes in her first game since 2017, tallying five points, three steals, an assist and a rebound. Her other two points came via the charity stripe.

Duke’s Kyra Lambert. (Mitchell Northam/High Post Hoops)
Duke’s Kyra Lambert. (Mitchell Northam/High Post Hoops) /

Lambert was a top 10 recruit coming out of Samuel Clemens High School. A native of Cibolo, Texas – just northeast of San Antonio – she was heralded as a pure point guard, a floor general, a smart player and described as a bullet because of her foul line to foul line speed.

She contributed to McCallie’s team right away, making 23 starts as a freshman. As a sophomore, she started all 33 games, averaging 7.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 steals per-game. She was 12th in the ACC in assists and fourth in assist-turnover ratio, someone who took great care of the ball and put her teammates in a position to score. She was also a stout defender, recording at least five steals in three different games that season.

Then came her injury against Hampton. It was the first round of the NCAA tournament and the Blue Devils were expected to go far as a No. 2 seed. They won that day, but without Lambert they were upset at home in the second round by a young Oregon team, led by freshmen Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard.

After sitting out all of her junior season, Lambert appeared to be poised to return in 2018-19. But in the preseason, she tore her ACL again and needed another surgery. Through it all, Lambert’s confidence and her desire to play the sport she loved again never wavered.

“I was always determined to get back on the court. I think that every injury, every situation has its ups and downs. It was definitely a rollercoaster. Everything isn’t all peaches and cream,” Lamber said. “But with the support of my teammates, coaching staff, athletic medicine staff, they just kept on believing in me, kept on talking to me, kept on supporting me through the highs and lows. Today was really just a culmination of all of those emotions in one. I’m just blessed to be here, honestly.”

Lambert kept busy while she was rehabbing from the trio of surgeries. Last spring, she graduated from Duke with interdepartmental degree in cultural anthropology and environmental science, picked up a minor psychology, earned a markets and management certificate and is now enrolled in the Duke Fuqua School of Business.

Leading up to this season, Lambert and the Duke staff took their time in getting her back on the court, but a few days ago, McCallie knew that Lambert was ready.

“She’s looked amazing,” McCallie said. “I told her, ‘You’re better than you were before.’ She’s been ready, in my opinion, for two weeks. She just had to go through all the steps to be cleared.”

For a Duke team that missed the NCAA tournament last season for just the second time in 25 years, Lambert gives them something they didn’t have before. She’s a vocal leader, a staunch defender and a solid three-point shooter, and all of those abilities were on display Tuesday night.

But after sitting courtside for two seasons, she’s also become a student of the game and sees it in ways that she didn’t before. While sitting at half-court below the scorers table in the fourth quarter waiting to re-enter the game, she was calling out assignments and sets to her teammates.

“Watching for two years, it’s given me a lot of perspective and a lot of chances to observe to see tendencies and to see how I can better help my team get W’s,” Lambert said. “Just being in the mix, it’s very different. My adrenaline is high and I’m just excited to be out there, just bouncing around.”

Duke’s next game is Sunday, on the road at No. 6 Texas A&M, less than three hours from where Lambert grew up, where her basketball career began.

The scars scattered across her left kneecap that will never fade are constant reminders of pain, changed plans and hard work for Lambert. But the standing ovation, the steal, the first quarter buzzer beater – those things won’t vanish either. Those moments and highlights will be trophies for Lambert; mementos that she can hold onto, remembering that it was all worth it.

Through the rest of this season, she’s hoping to pile up more of them for the Blue Devils.

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