By Jeffrey Swindoll
The No. 2 seed Lady Bears took care of business in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament, defeating the No. 15 seed Western Kentucky Lady Toppers 87-74 Saturday at the Ferrell Center.
Freshman forward Nina Davis has been a saving grace for the Lady Bears all season, but it remained to be seen how she would perform on the big stage— the NCAA Tournament. Davis responded firmly with possibly her best career performance yet.
“I found out early that I was faster than the player that was guarding me,” Davis said. “My teammates kept feeding me the ball, and I was just trying to use my quickness to get around them. It pretty much worked for me throughout the night.”
Not only did Davis surpass Baylor’s freshman rebound record, formerly held by Brittney Griner, but it was also her first game ever scoring over 30 points, finishing with 32 points and 10 rebounds. Davis shot 11-for-13 and combined with senior guard Odyssey Sims’ 31 points to give the two players 63 of Baylor’s 87 points, or 72 percent of the team’s points.
Davis and Sims led the way, but all but one of Baylor’s players, including the bench, scored 3 or more points. The cliche “team effort” gets thrown around quite a bit, but each member of the Lady Bears squad put in a convincing shift deserving of that common post-game phrase.
Baylor’s 13-point lead at the end was the biggest lead of the game for the Lady Bears. From the outside, it may have come as a shock that Western Kentucky fought throughout the game as bravely as they did, holding the game below a double-digit deficit for the majority of the game.
Baylor’s coaching staff and players knew the Lady Toppers were an energetic basketball team that was not going to come down to Waco and roll over for the Lady Bears’ powerhouse program to dictate the outcome of the game before it even started.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey emphasized all week the respect she and her coaching staff had for Western Kentucky as they prepared the Lady Bears for their first game in the tournament. The seeding favored Baylor, but the Lady Bears were tested on Saturday, even with a loud home crowd behind them.
Baylor’s sideline was missing a distinct personality and commanding presence on the floor Saturday— Mulkey. Associate head coach Bill Brock stood in as head coach for Mulkey, as she was suspended for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament because of post game comments she made last season directed at the officials after Baylor lost to Louisville.
Players stated before the game that Mulkey would be missed, but her absence would not be an issue against Western Kentucky. In fact, Mulkey pleaded with the media to “quit writing about her being suspended” leading up to Saturday’s game. Mulkey and players believed Brock and the rest of the coaching staff would get the job done Saturday.
Baylor’s support for Brock extended beyond the players though. Moments before tip-off, Brock walked onto the court during the pre-game announcements for starting lineups. As he walked down to Western Kentucky’s bench to shake WKU head coach Michelle Clark-Heard’s hand, the crowd left Brock with no doubt of their full support towards him with a standing ovation all around the Ferrell Center.
“When I walked out there and the fans started standing and clapping, that made me relax a little bit. I’ve got to be honest with you there,” Brock said. “Every time that we needed their support, they were on their feet and they were clapping. I thought they did a great job tonight.”
Sophomore guard Niya Johnson posted an excellent assist turnover ratio Saturday. It has become an expectation from her this season to not only take care of the ball, but find players in position to unlock and expose opposing defenses in the half court offense. Johnson dished nine assists and zero turnovers against Western Kentucky.
“Tonight, [Johnson] only scored six points, but she has nine assists and no turnovers,” Brock said. “That’s unbelievable.”
It was a valiant effort from the visiting Western Kentucky. The Lady Toppers had a big hill to climb with hardly any sight of a Western Kentucky fan in the stands for support. With the final three minutes of the game still to play, the outcome was uncertain. The Lady Bears, even at home as the No. 2 seed, still hung in the balance with Western Kentucky.
The Lady Toppers were led by all-conference post Chastity Gooch. Gooch scored 23 and shot 10-for-16 in the game. It seemed Baylor did not find an answer for her offensive presence in the low-post for the entire game. Fortunately for the Lady Bears, Davis and Sims gave Baylor the cushion necessary to overcome Western Kentucky’s unrelenting effort.
The Lady Toppers were brave, but came up short against the Lady Bears who closed the game out in the last two minutes of the game.
“They put so much into this program,” Clark-Heard said. “They’ve done a ton. For us to come in here and compete the way we just did, and go to the last three minutes — it just says a ton about this team and how special they are.”
The Lady Bears advanced to the second round with Saturday’s win over WKU, and will face California. The Cal Golden Bears played against Fordham before Baylor’s game, and won by one point. Brock said Cal, although just a second round matchup for Baylor, presents a tough task for the Lady Bears in terms of personnel.
“Cal is super athletic at every spot on the floor,” Brock said. “It’s going to be a pretty good matchup between their point guard and our point guard. You’re going to see a lot of resemblance between them and us.”
No. 2 seed Baylor plays No. 7 seed Cal at 8 p.m. Monday at the Ferrell Center.