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It was an emotional Sunday night for the No. 1 Baylor Lady Bears when the journey for a second consecutive National Title came to a close after a heartbreaking 82-81 loss to No. 5 Louisville Cardinals.
The Baylor campus and Waco community are still in shock, trying to process how this could have happened. Many fans had already bought Final Four tickets and were planning a trip to New Orleans months in advance. Now with the Lady Bears out of the tournament, many are trying to sell them.
Despite being the No. 1 overall seed, Baylor still had its weaknesses. Many saw the Lady Bears as an unstoppable force because of last year’s National Title run, but Louisville found a way around their strengths and used it against them. The Cardinals took senior center Brittney Griner out of the game with their overly aggressive pressure defense, making her a non-factor as she went 4-of-10 from the field.
The blame could be placed on the officials, and fans can ask ‘What if?’ questions as they try to come up with other alternatives to heal this scar, but in the end the result is the same. Now all the Lady Bears can do is look to what’s ahead.
“We can’t take time back to replay that game, so we take this loss and we run from it,” senior forward Destiny Williams said. “Hopefully these young girls who have been on this team learn from our mistakes and do better than what we did.”
Changes are coming for the Baylor Lady Bears with the Griner era coming to an end. Griner, the projected No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, as well as three other starters are leaving Baylor.
The starting lineup will be very different as junior guard Odyssey Sims the only starter returning. It will be up to freshman guards Niya Johnson and Alexis Prince to step up.
Despite the losses in the Sweet Sixteen this year and the loss in the Elite Eight in 2011, the past four years have been successful for the Lady Bears, who won three straight Big 12 conference and tournament titles, earned two Final Four appearances and won a National Title.
Griner’s growth over the four years can be seen throughout her play. While she didn’t have a game that mirrored her statistical averages against Louisville, she still made 60.7 percent of her shots this year, improving from freshman year when she shot 50.3 percent making her a threat offensively as well as defensively.
“First off, you’re not going to come across too many 6’8” girls that can dominate the paint, can be as athletic as her,” Sims said. “I do take risks that I never took since I’ve been playing basketball as far as some passes.”
Griner capped off a productive career at Baylor breaking records and making national headlines along the way. Griner set NCAA records for dunks by a female at 18 and blocked shots at 736. Griner also ranks No. 2 in scoring with 3,283 career points.
Baylor did make history on Tuesday with both Griner and Sims being named to the Associated Press’ five-member All-American team, making this the sixth time that two teammates were selected All-Americans.
Now with one of Baylor’s most prolific players leaving, a new era begins. Freshman center Kristina Higgins has not gotten a lot of playing time, but is projected to be the starting post. Johnson and Prince have the experience despite not being starters this season.
Johnson has played well her freshman year, recording 101 assists to just 41 turnovers. She has been an effective passer, but needs to develop her offense to keep up with competition. Prince has hit shots during key possessions, but both guards have time to improve before taking on starting roles.
“They are the current team, but they’re the future,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “We lose so many people, so many seniors and the minutes that they’re getting are not mop up minutes. They are in the mix and obviously they knew they are talented enough to be in the mix or they wouldn’t be here.”
Sims will be the leader of the team. It will be up to her to keep the intensity up especially on the defensive side of the ball to keep Baylor competitive.