Agbuke anchors Lady Bears frontcourt
By Jeffrey Swindoll
The Lady Bears’ high-powered offense was on display on Monday at the Ferrell Center. Baylor scored 96 points to win by seven, 96-89, against the Oklahoma Sooners.
When the Lady Bears score that much it usually comes in a double-digit blowout win, but Monday almost turned into a loss. It was one of Baylor’s worst defensive performances of the season.
“We hung on and we won,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “Thank goodness we had the 32-point lead.”
Monday’s game showed just how important junior post Sune Agbuke is to the team as a complete unit. Agbuke has a sore Achilles tendon that she is trying to nurse back to 100 percent prior to the post-season for the Lady Bears.
In the second meeting of the season against Oklahoma, the Lady Bears had a 32-point lead just five minutes into the second half. Mulkey subbed in her two post players behind Agbuke on the depth chart with sophomore post Kristina Higgins and freshman post Khadijiah Cave.
“We had a 32-point lead and I thought, ‘Now’s a time to let this young bunch at the post play,’” Mulkey said.
Higgins and Cave did not have their best showing, though, against the Sooners. The Lady Bears count on Agbuke’s defensive ability and sheer size to be the heart of their defense.
Mulkey emphasizes and expects quality rebounding from a team she considers a Final Four contender this year.
After letting Oklahoma back into the game, the Lady Bears were not sure how it happened.
“I really don’t know,” senior guard Makenzie Robertson said. “I just remember looking up and it was cut by a lot.”
Some would say it was nervousness from the Lady Bears or maybe it was the Sooners, who started to shoot better in the second half. Freshman forward Nina Davis denied any assumption that she or the team were unfocused in a bizarre second half.
“I wouldn’t say there was a point where we got nervous,” Davis said. “I think more so for the team, it was more of a sense of urgency. We knew what it took to get the lead, and we knew we just needed to start rebounding and stop them in transition.”
The Sooners were outscored by 22 points at halftime, 53-31, and were outshot 31.3 to 55 percent in field goals made.
Both of those stats took a complete turnaround in the second half. Oklahoma shot better and scored more than Baylor in the second half by a significant margin. Oklahoma guards penetrated into the lane off the dribble at will, and there was little Baylor did to stop it.
“I just thought it totally changed the complexion of the game when I didn’t put [Agbuke] back in there because she is a wall back there,” Mulkey said. “She’s a defensive presence when those guards were penetrating. We just didn’t get it done on that end of floor with that position [with Agbuke out].”
Every basketball coach expects post players to be a rebounding force on both ends of the floor. The Lady Bears are usually a very solid rebounding team.
With Agbuke out of the game, the Lady Bears’ post players came up short in rebounds.
Cave was the only player between her and Higgins with a rebound, and she totalled two rebounds against the Sooners. When the second-string post player is filling in for the starter because of Achilles soreness, zero rebounds is not going to cut it in the long run.
“We weren’t really rebounding as well as we have been,” Robertson said. “[Oklahoma] also started making some threes, and threes can put you back in the game pretty quick.”
Higgins is Agbuke’s primary substitute. When Agbuke struggled with foul trouble earlier in the season, Higgins would check in for a couple minutes, give Agbuke a breather and soon check right back out of the game.
Past opposing teams could not really expose Higgins’ possible weakness or recognize her tendencies because she would check in and out of the game often with Agbuke. Cave earned most of her playing time once the rest of the starters already checked out. The Lady Bears have been ahead in plenty of games this season and that allows Mulkey to give her young players experience and playing time.
Monday was different. Higgins and Cave were playing more than they have in the past. The absence of Agbuke on defense revealed gaping holes in the Baylor post.
“I wasn’t pleased with the way we handled the second half after Sune went out, defensively,” Mulkey said. “It wasn’t like they came in and ran a new offense, but give credit to them too because they started making shots that they missed in the first half.”
As the Lady Bears move forward, Mulkey wants to keep her team’s status in perspective. The Lady Bears won the game against one of the best teams in the Big 12, and are looking to earn their fourth straight Big 12 regular season title.
Baylor’s depth at the post will be tested if they anticipate a successful post-season.