By Jeffrey Swindoll
The No. 5 Lady Bears start their NCAA Tournament campaign against Western Kentucky at 5:30 p.m. Saturday with homecourt advantage at the Ferrell Center. The game will also be televised on ESPN2.
Baylor (29-4) will be forced to play Western Kentucky (24-8) without head coach Kim Mulkey. Mulkey was suspended for one game by the NCAA for the 2014 NCAA tournament for postgame comments she made about the officiating for last year’s loss against Louisville, where the Lady Bears bowed out of the tournament sooner than expected.
Mulkey assured media on Thursday she has total confidence in her players and coaching staff to get the job done during her one-game absence on Saturday.
“My staff has filled in for me before,” Mulkey said. “They’ve all been head coaches. They know what we’re doing, and you’ve got those players on the floor that have been in the system and they know what we’re doing. Now, if I had a new coaching staff and I had no seniors and no upperclassmen, I would be more nervous.”
This will be the last NCAA Tournament for seniors Odyssey Sims and Makenzie Robertson. Sims and Robertson were both part of the 40-0 undefeated team that won the tournament in 2012, but that championship was won on the backs of experienced players, including superstar center Brittney Griner.
This time around, maturity will be a major test for the Lady Bears with only one returning starter, but playing and performing at a high level with a young team has been a theme of the season for the Lady Bears.
“[The upperclassmen] pretty much gave us the rundown of everything to expect, to know that going into this game you can’t underestimate anybody at this level, even though they are a lower seed,” freshman forward Nina Davis said. “Everybody made it to the tournament for a reason. So, you just have to take it game by game and not look into the future and try to act like one game is not more important than another.”
After winning the Big 12 tournament more than a week ago, the Lady Bears had a long week and a half of preparation for the NCAA tournament. Adjusting to an elongated period of preparing the team for a game was an adjustment for the Lady Bears. The team is happy to have gotten the rest, but at the same time, are a bit restless to get back into gameday mindset again.
“There are a lot of bruises and soreness that we were able to get past and get through [over the break],” Robertson said. “In the Big 12, you’re playing multiple games in a week. You don’t really have that much time really to get in a lull. Now you’re kind of just waiting for Saturday to come because you’re ready to get out there and play against someone other than your teammates. We’re ready.”
Western Kentucky is unfamiliar territory for the Lady Bears in the sense that they are a non-conference team, but Mulkey said the Lady Toppers have two players that stand out in the lineup. Western Kentucky’s Chastity Gooch and Alexis Govan are each All-American candidates. Gooch was named Sun Belt Conference MVP after the Lady Toppers won the league.
The Lady Toppers won the Sun Belt Conference and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on championship weekend.
Western Kentucky is also on a 10-game win streak coming into the Baylor game this Saturday. The winner of Saturday’s game plays the winner of the Cal/Fordham game.
“Everyone at this time is great,” Robertson said. “[Western Kentucky is] going to be fast and throw a lot of different things at us. We’re just going to have to be able to read it and adjust.”