By Jeffrey Swindoll
On Family Night at the Ferrell Center, fans were treated to a tightly contested rivalry game that saw No. 7 Baylor (18-3, 8-1) earn its league-leading eighth win in conference play against the Texas Longhorns in a 87-73 contest.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey knew her team would be challenged by Texas on the boards more than any team has all season, saying the Longhorns (14-7, 5-4) are possibly “the best rebounding team in the league.” The Lady Bears stood their ground early in the rebound battle. Texas edged out Baylor by a narrow 24-22 rebounding margin in the first half.
Already undersized against Texas post Imani McGee-Stafford, Baylor subbed out junior post Sune Agbuke when she earned her second personal foul early into the game. Higgins played 11 minutes in the first half while Agbuke played seven minutes.
The Longhorns ran the majority of the offensive plays through their bigs McGee-Stafford and forward Nneka Enemkpali finding success often. McGee-Stafford and Enemkpali scored 12 of Texas’ 36 first half points.
The lead swung back and forth in the first half, marking one of Baylor’s first times being tested by a conference team at the Ferrell Center this season.
Neither team had a generally positive night in terms of shooting the ball from the floor. The game was noticeably more physical and faster-paced than Baylor’s last home game against Texas Tech. Mulkey would often swing her arms up and down after a big play in favor of Baylor, trying to pump up the crowd to give the team motivation.
The spirit of the Baylor-Texas rivalry was vibrant.
Like any rivalry game, controversial fouls were called for both teams, but Baylor was able to capitalize on its free throw chances. The Lady Bears made up for their negative 28.1 field goal percentage in the first half with 83.3 percent in free throws.
Even when Baylor’s shots were not falling in open-play, the Lady Bears were almost perfect from the line and continued to be smart with the ball, only turning it over two times in the game.
Rebounds, free throws and turnovers were the keys to this game, and Baylor outperformed Texas in all three; 43-41 in rebounds, 84.1-69.2 in free throws made and 2-15 in turnovers.
“You’ll win a lot of ball games if you only turn it over twice,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said.
Texas held a 36-35 lead over Baylor at the start of the second half.
Makenzie Robertson and Sims did not have their usual three-point show tonight, but they contributed to the team in other ways, collectively making 21-of-24 free throws.
The first half story repeated itself in the second, but only on one side of the floor.
Texas fouled Baylor many times. Recognizing the Longhorns’ tendency to foul, Sims and freshman guard Niya Johnson drove the ball into traffic often, scoring off of layups, free throws or both.
“Both of us fouled a lot in the first, but I thought they made better adjustments to how the game was being officiated,” Texas head coach Karen Aston said.
The Longhorns shot themselves in the foot, fouling a disciplined free throw team, putting the Lady Bears into the bonus with plenty of time still on the clock.
“We lost the possession game,” Aston said. “We talk about the games within the game like free throws and rebounding, and we didn’t win those today.”
Because of the fouls, Baylor could finally widen the points margin as they held the lead for almost the entire second half, clinically sinking free throw after free throw.
Both coaches harped on the importance of rebounds in this game, knowing they would be crucial to the outcome of the game.
“I think they came up with a lot of timely rebounds and Odyssey was terrific,” Aston said. “I thought we played with good effort, but we just didn’t play smart basketball tonight.”
Other than quick transition buckets and free throws from freshman forward Nina Davis and Sims drawing fouls, there was not much else to Baylor’s offense. The Lady Bears were preoccupied with how they were going to defend against a big and fast Texas team.
“It’s amazing what defense and effort will do for you when the other team’s a little more talented,” Mulkey said. “I think the first five minutes of the second half of every game can determine the outcome of the game.”
Sims finished with 44 points against Texas, marking her fourth time ever scoring more than 40 and her 32-game streak of double-digit scoring.
“I tried to run the offense by changing things up,” Sims said. “Even when I had two shooters in the corner, I just kept attacking and got what I could out of it.”
Davis extended a streak of her own, recording her sixth double-double with 15 points and 17 rebounds.
“It was very physical guarding Nneka,” Davis said. “She’s one of the better players I’ve had to guard this year. I knew coming into the game she was going to be very aggressive, so I knew I just had to match her.
Freshman post Khadijah Cave joined Davis and Sims in double-digit scoring, earning 11 points in a game in 14 minutes.
Cave and Higgins saw a lot more playing time than they were possibly used to after Agbuke fouled out of the game with eight minutes left to play. Mulkey was pleased with how the inexperienced players stepped up and battled.
Baylor goes on the road to face Oklahoma at 6 p.m. Monday in Norman, Okla. The game will be on ESPN2 as part of ESPN’s “Big Monday” lineup.