By Jeffrey Swindoll
This season marked the end and beginning of a new era in Lady Bears basketball. A common question was brought up over and over— how can Baylor succeed without Brittney Griner?
Journalists and fans of the women’s game had reason to handicap how the Lady Bears would fare without Griner. After having a team like the one Mulkey had with Griner and other stars such as Destiny Williams, this year was partly written off as a simple rebuilding year for Baylor women’s basketball by just about anyone.
Rather than hide in the shadow while waiting for the gaping hole left by last year’s team to be filled, the Lady Bears boldly held up a light to the doubts and shined as a beacon of women’s basketball in the 2013-14 season.
Somewhere along the line, the Lady Bears lost the script. This season not only shattered expectations, but it also shaped up for another Big 12 title run as well as an Elite 8 appearance in the NCAA tournament. All of that seemed too farfetched to even consider at the start of the year.
“I kept it in perspective when we won the Big 12 tournament and the Big 12 regular season and when we won the two games to get to the Sweet 16,” Mulkey said. “If you could coach a team like that every year, you don’t have to get to the Final Four to understand and keep it in perspective. They’re just a joy to be around.”
After a relatively soft early schedule and a few key moments in the national spotlight — going to four overtimes against No. 5 Kentucky at AT&T Stadium, posting a very respectable performance against No. 1 ranked Connecticut on ESPN — fans as well as Baylor’s players started to realize the Lady Bears were a force to be reckoned with this season.
“We played so many different teams that threw different things at us,” freshman forward Nina Davis said. “Some played 2-3 zones, some played man-to-man. We pretty much faced anything that we could have gone up against this season.”
Even Mulkey was willing to admit she did not know where this team would end up this season, and mid-way through the year she said her expectations had already been surpassed.
“This team has grown faster than all of us really expected, especially the freshmen who have come a long way and have stepped up to the plate,” senior guard Odyssey Sims said. “They’ve learned their roles and took it upon themselves.”
The narrative of the Lady Bears being crippled without Griner was quickly excluded from talking points for each game, but the media soon repositioned their soundbites around Sims playing with a young team. It had become evident that the Lady Bears did not need Griner or even experience to be a powerhouse.
That was enough of the Griner narrative. Mulkey said this season really had nothing to do with Griner, and it was all about freshmen stepping up as well as seniors carrying the torch one last time.
“I think the schedule has allowed them to mature and grow up. I think our non-conference schedule was soft enough to allow them to gain confidence, with a few hard games in there,” Mulkey said. “I just think practice and putting them on the floor at a young age right off the bat has allowed them to grow and mature and not be overwhelmed.”
It is difficult to fully encapsulate what the Lady Bears overcame and accomplished this season. There were storylines consistently coming out of the team from an unprecedented number of angles and perspectives — Sims’ player-of-the-year season, guard Makenzie Robertson’s breakout senior year, Davis emerging as an All-American as a freshman, the team’s inexperienced supporting cast excelling at the next level and coping with the season-ending injury of junior guard Alexis Prince.
“I could coach a group like that every year,” Mulkey said. “I’ve won national championships; I don’t need anymore. I just love to coach kids like that. They give you everything they have.”
The Lady Bears lose Odyssey Sims for next season, but young players have already shown the capability to fill the void left by the unanimous AP All-American.Sims’ list of accolades is impressive. She won the 2014 Wade Trophy, Lieberman Award, 2014 WBCA All-American, Wooden Award All-American and is one of three finalists for Defensive Player of the Year.
Davis was named Big 12 Freshmn of the Week four times and was No. 1 in the Big 12 and No. 8 nationally in field goal percentage. In the big picture, the Lady Bears went above and beyond the expectations anyone, including themselves, had set for the team to achieve. There is a lot to look forward to if you are a Lady Bears fan.