By Jeffrey Swindoll
The No. 2 seed Baylor Lady Bears battled the quick and explosive No. 7 seed California Golden Bears in front of a rocking crowd at the Ferrell Center Monday. Baylor came out on top 75-56 after leading only by one at the half. The Golden Bears would not give up an inch in the first half, but ran out of gas in the second.
The loud crowd at the Ferrell Center played a huge part in energizing the play on the court. The home crowd turned it up a notch for this second round thriller. The Lady Bears needed that energy against a capable No. 7 seed. The Lady Bears were at a slight disadvantage in size against the Golden Bears.
Cal made it a primary objective to stop the Lady Bears in transition. Breakaway baskets are an easy way let the game get away mathematically and emotionally, especially in front of a vocal, electric crowd like Baylor’s. It became apparent very early that the Golden Bears were going to the Lady Bears a run for their money.
Most of Baylor’s offensive production did not come from the usual contributors of senior guard Odyssey Sims and freshman forward Nina Davis in the first half. Sophomore guard Niya Johnson was the lone starter leading the charge for Baylor, and young players like sophomore post Kristina Higgins, freshman post Khadijah Cave and freshman guard Imani Wright had to step up. It was enough for the Lady Bears to be up by one at halftime.
The subs stayed on the bench for the start of the second half, and Sims turned it on after the break, willing herself to the basket. Sims made an effort to either come away with a foul or score each trip to the basket. Cal opened the first two minutes of the half without a basket. Baylor exploited Cal’s inability to score to go up by 6 points. The Golden Bears stormed back to tie the game at 44, but Baylor slammed the door.
“Cal was very physical,” Sims said. “We tried to push the ball when we could. We just kept pushing the issue.”
Cal made it close, pulling within 3 points of Baylor with under 10 minutes to play, but the comeback was deflated by a long three-pointer from Sims as the shot clock was expiring.
Cave played a massive role in Baylor staying alive on the boards as she filled in for Agbuke who was on the bench with foul trouble. Cave shot 5-for-5, earning hustle points under the basket against multiple Cal defenders. Baylor won the battle on the boards 41-34.
“If we made it look easy, it definitely wasn’t easy,” Davis said. “As far as Khadijah, she came in and did an outstanding job when I was in foul trouble early.”
Cal gave Baylor a big hand in getting easy points by putting the Lady Bears in the bonus with nearly 12 minutes left in regulation. The Golden Bears could not keep it nearly as close as it was in the first half to close out the game.
Sims found more space in the lane, and the Golden Bears had to pick their poison — avoid fouling and give Sims a less-contested shot or defend hard and risk fouling good a free throw shooter. Either way, Baylor came away with points much easier in the second half.
“It is so enjoyable when a coach can go to work every day, and all they have think about is X’s and O’s,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “That’s why this team is so special to me. You’re just proud of how they act and how they carry themselves.”
The Lady Bears advance to the Sweet Sixteen and travel to South Bend, Ind. to play Kentucky, a team that Baylor played through four overtimes earlier in the season at the Ferrell Center.