By Kathryn Worrall
“Over the course of four years, you break down together and you pick each other back up. That is what makes us such a great unit.”
On Thursday, March 28, a few days before the Lady Bears’ upset by Louisville, senior center Brittney Griner did not realize the impact of her words.
As defending National Champions, the Lady Bears’ loss came as a surprise, but according to head coach Kim Mulkey, the loss should not define the six seniors’ collegiate careers.
“We were the most talented team this year,” Mulkey said. “The most talented teams don’t always win the championships.”
With 135 career wins, one National Championship, two Final Four visits, six Big 12 Championships, and a 40-0 record, among other achievements, no one can doubt the talent of the Lady Bears. The six seniors – center Brittney Griner, guard Kimetria Hayden, guard Jordan Madden, forward Brooklyn Pope, student assistant Shanay Washington and forward Destiny Williams – have “led us in a golden age for Lady Bear basketball,” said athletic director Ian McCaw at the Lady Bear Appreciation Banquet on April 23.
However, Mulkey can recall the tough beginning of a young team full of All-Americans.
“When they were younger, it was a roller coaster,” Mulkey said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘This has to be what it is like to be married to this many women.’ I kept telling myself, ‘It is not going to be this bad when they grow up,’ and it evolved into a cohesive unit.”
This evolution required improvements from each teammate, such as Hayden’s guarding skills, Madden’s defense, and Griner’s control.
When Griner was a freshman, Mulkey warned her against missing a dunk that could have won a game, but by Griner’s senior year, Mulkey encouraged her to “go up and send a statement.”
“They have become so good together than sometimes it is OK to go up and intimidate,” Mulkey said. “It is good to coach them now as opposed to when they got here because Lord, that was stressful.”
Transformation is evident in the “quick-witted” Pope. Mulkey urged Pope to work on three things for her senior year – offensive rebounding, immediately “putting it back in,” and her defense – and Pope’s game statistics illustrate her effort towards improvement. Shooting 55 percent from the field accompanied by 42 steals, the Most Improved Award winner earned a starting position on the lineup this year.
“Brooklyn improved so much in one year that it put her in a position to be drafted,” Mulkey said. “It was her buying into the system and doing what she does best.”
Pope, who graduated in December, was a third-round WNBA draft pick by the Chicago Sky. She describes her time at Baylor as “surprising.”
“No one really expected much,” Pope said. “But we all got a lot.”
Not every player’s story has such a happy ending. Along with Griner, Washington started for the Bears as a freshman, but had to retire due to many knee injuries.
“I told her then, ‘We’ll take care of you,’” Mulkey said. “’You’ll travel with us. You’ll sit on the bench. … You are a part of this team.’”
Senior night was especially emotional for the tearful Washington as she hugged Mulkey’s neck.
“She kept saying, ‘Coach, it wasn’t supposed to end this way,’” Mulkey said. “Life dealt her a tough blow.”
Washington graduates in May and will go to Kenya for the student athlete mission trip. She received the Coaches Award at the senior banquet.
In a teasing, light-hearted poem to introduce Mulkey during the banquet, Madden claimed to be Mulkey’s favorite.
“Jordan was one of the best I have ever coached in assigning her to a player and telling her, ‘Go stop her,’” Mulkey said. “She shuts down the best players in the conferences.”
Madden, who received the Defensive Award, was second in steals this year. However, Madden did not stop as just a great defense player, but worked on her offense.
She shot 40 percent for 3-pointers and 54 percent for field goals. She was also third for assists. Madden will graduate this summer with an opportunity to play professional basketball overseas.
As for Hayden, or “Nae Nae,” Mulkey describes her as stubborn. While she “didn’t guard squat as a freshman,” she improved and became a great offensive rebounder. She was No. 6 in games started at Baylor, No. 8 in assists, No. 10 in 3-pointers and free throw percentage, and No. 25 in scores overall, with more than 1,100 points in her career.
The Melissa Jones Hustle and Courage Award recipient graduates in May and also has the opportunity to play overseas.
As for the legacy the seniors will leave behind, Hayden hopes they are remembered for every moment.
“We did it all,” Hayden said. “I want them to remember not just the great thing, not just the bad thing, but everything – not just the 40-0 or the loss.”
Williams, a transfer from Illinois, had to sit out a year, but being in the starting lineup for the Lady Bears’ 40-0 season was worth it. The Big 12 Conference Sixth Man Award recipient appreciates the wins and the losses the team has experienced.
“No matter how many battles we had or how many people wanted us to lose … they can’t take away the joy and happiness that we did have on this team,” Williams said. “We were a hardworking bunch and did not take anything for granted, no matter what happened.”
Mulkey describes Williams as a “quiet producer” and “deceptively good at rebounding on the offensive end.” She was awarded the Lady Bear Award and is on track to graduate in May. Though Mulkey claims Williams should have been drafted, Williams’ future for basketball will be a WNBA camp or playing overseas.
As for the Co-MVP and Rebound Award winner, Griner, Mulkey was speechless.
“I don’t know what I could tell you tonight that has not been written, has not come out of my mouth, hasn’t been said by most of you about Brittney Griner,” Mulkey said at the banquet. “Brittney Griner changed the way I coached the game.”
The No. 1 WNBA draft pick, the holder of numerous records, and the standout-dunking center, Griner has been a game changer for women’s basketball.
Despite all of her impressive statistics and records, Mulkey highlighted Griner’s commitment to Baylor by playing all four years, despite opportunities to play overseas, while associate head coach Bill Brock spoke of her character.
“Two of the things I will always remember about B.G. is this – one, she never back-talked me in any situation in coaching,” Brock said. “Second thing, every day she gave effort in practice.”
Griner is on track to graduate in May. She has said that she will miss the Baylor fans, being on campus, and being friends with fellow classmates.
As for what Baylor will miss about Brittney?
“My smile and personality,” Griner said with a goofy grin.
“Her free spirit!” Mulkey interjected.
Griner was the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick for the Phoenix Mercury, the first time in Baylor history.
As for the future relationship of these six seniors, they plan on staying connected.
“I came in not knowing anyone,” Williams said. “I had the chance to get to know a group of young ladies and got to become lifelong friends.”
Pope, Hayden and Williams all agreed on the value of social media to stay in touch, as well as texting, phone calls, the occasional get-together, or even a basketball matchup.
“We [Chicago Sky] will play Brittney the first game of the season,” Pope said.
With such a well-rounded group of athletes led by a passionate coach, one cannot doubt they will all be successful, in whatever path they choose.
“Coach mentored us in the right way,” Williams said. “She got us to be successful on and off the court, by getting a degree and also winning a national championship. You’ll always be thankful for having a woman so selfless.”
The 2012-2013 Lady Bears basketball team, led by six seniors, will leave behind a legacy far greater than the final buzzer.
“I think throughout the four years of their career here, they will be talked about long, long from now,” Mulkey said.