By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
LEXINGTON, KY. — The Baylor Lady Bears’ final record during the 2017-2018 season was 33-2. Thirty-three wins and just two losses. The losses, few and far between, with a 30-game winning streak sandwiched in the middle. It was a season that many programs across the country would love to have.
The Lady Bears ran the table in the Big 12 conference. They followed it up by winning three games in three days to hoist another Big 12 conference tournament championship.
The season included dominant home victories over Kentucky and Stanford. It featured sweeps of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas, who all joined Baylor in the big dance, not to mention sweeps of TCU and West Virginia, who are both still alive in the Women’s NIT.
But when teams have the singular goal of winning a National Championship in mind, any other result leaves something more to be desired.
Friday night’s 72-67 Sweet Sixteen loss to No. 6 Oregon State at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. certainly has that feel for Baylor.
The Lady Bears battled for 40 minutes and despite some uncharacteristic misses in the paint from its stars, junior center Kalani Brown and sophomore forward Lauren Cox, they still had a chance to win late.
That was until OSU junior guard Katie McWilliams buried a three-pointer from the left corner after the Lady Bears’ cut off a penetration toward the basket.
Oregon State, who averaged eight threes per contest on the season, connected on nine of 20 against the Lady Bears and many of them were made possible because of the attention and performance of senior center Marie Gulich.
Gulich finished with a game-high 26 points and nine rebounds on 10 of 17 shooting from the floor and played all but one minute against Baylor, never giving the Lady Bears’ defense a breather from her presence in the post.
“She was dominant. We had nobody that could guard her,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said about Gulich. “She was the best player on the floor, and she carried her team basically. She really did. She carried them in that she made everybody else better. She gave them good looks, good shots, one more rebound. I was very impressed with her.”
This was the second time in just three years that Oregon State has dialed up the magic potion to send the Lady Bears home earlier than expected in March.
In 2016, the Beavers upset the then top-seeded Lady Bears 60-57 in the Elite Eight to put an end to their Final Four dreams.
But playing in the tournament’s second weekend has become a regularity for Mulkey and the Lady Bears. In 18 years at the helm, Baylor has only failed to make the NCAA Tournament once, in 2002-2003, but made it all the way to the NIT Finals that year. It has advanced to 13 Sweet Sixteens, including 10 straight, the Final Four three times and been crowned National Champions twice, in 2005 and 2012.
Mulkey’s expectations for her team are high and she won’t back away from holding this level of expectations.
“Who wants to go play somewhere that doesn’t have a standard? I don’t. That’s called mediocrity. Name me another program right now that has that standard around central Texas. Men, women, football, name them. I’m proud of that standard,” Mulkey said. “I don’t like finishing in the Sweet 16 or in the Elite 8, but as I tell you many times, we’re going to keep feeding that monster. If we break through that door, we’ll break through it. If we don’t, we’ll just keep feeding it.”
Both of the Lady Bears’ losses came at the hands of the Pac-12 conference, with then No. 8 UCLA getting the best of a depleted Baylor team, who was without its head coach as well as Cox during their trip to Pauley Pavilion back in November. Brown did all she could to keep the Lady Bears in the game, scoring 33 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Just as the loss to the Bruins stung in November and the loss to the Beavers on Friday stings now, the bigger losses staring Baylor in the face were ones that couldn’t be settled on the court. They couldn’t be solved by making one more key defensive stop or hitting one more big shot — they were relentless and brutal attacks from the game of life.
The trials the Lady Bears faced started in November, when Mulkey’s daughter and associate director of operations Makenzie Fuller lost her unborn child. Cox, who has diabetes, dealt with ketoacidosis, a condition that occurs when the body cannot produce enough insulin, and didn’t travel to Los Angeles.
Freshman guard Trinity Oliver tore up her knee in a Nov. 30 game against Kentucky, limiting the Baylor roster to just nine players. In January, former Lady Bear and member of the 2005 National Champion team Chameka Scott died of cancer.
It was one thing and after another.
“I don’t have a book to go find what page I find how to deal with this on. You deal with it with your heart. You deal with it as you would your own family and as a mother and as their coach, and yet we don’t get a break. You’ve just got to keep going to work,” Mulkey said. “And you don’t go to work with this stoic face like, oh, be strong, be brave. You cry with them, you laugh with them, you bring it out of them, and it’s a testament, and I’ve said this many times, to the parenting of these kids, because they do care, they do hurt, they do have feelings.”
In February, the Lady Bears lost starting guard, sophomore Natalie Chou, to a wrist injury. Then on Senior Night, the celebration was marred as senior guard Kristy Wallace tore her ACL, effectively ending her career as a Lady Bear.
But the Lady Bears showed no quit and that showed until the final buzzer against Oregon State.
“Did we miss Kristy Wallace? Guys, you don’t miss — look, you lose your quarterback, yeah, you miss them. We missed her tonight,” Mulkey said. “But that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have won the game. That doesn’t mean we went in there thinking we were defeated. We fought to the very end.”
In light of the injuries, the Lady Bears went into a self-mandated “next one up” mode and that meant increased minutes and production from freshman guard Alexis Morris and sophomore guard Juicy Landrum. Landrum scored eight points and dished out four assists against Grambling State and had 17, including all three of Baylor’s three-point field goals in its 80-58 win over Michigan in the second round.
But Landrum was held scoreless against Oregon State, and Morris finished with 14 points, including the final nine for the Lady Bears to give them one last fighting chance. But she was just five of 19 from the floor.
Despite the shooting woes, their impact on the team was not lost and the Lady Bears would not have gotten to the Sweet Sixteen without them.
“Alexis Morris stepped in and did a remarkable job as a freshman. Juicy Landrum stepped in and did a remarkable job as a sophomore. I thought there were moments tonight where the lights were too big,” Mulkey said. “ But I know we wouldn’t be here today without her stepping in and doing good when Natalie went down. Morris is a freshman, and she will learn. She will get better. The good thing is we have them all back.”
The season didn’t end the way the Lady Bears hoped it would. For guard Dekeiya Cohen and Wallace, both seniors, that didn’t take away from the incredible experience of their final season.
“It’s not like we expected, obviously, but I think we fought hard. I think we fought until the end, and that’s all I could really ask for. I know that we all wanted it the same way I want it, even though I was a senior, but we fell a little short. But I’m proud of our overall season,” Cohen said.
Make no mistake about it, Mulkey said she expects the Lady Bears to be in the hunt heading into next season. Eight of her 10 scholarship players will return, including Brown and Cox, who formed one of the best frontcourt combinations in the country. Together the two averaged about 35 points and 20 rebounds per game. The backcourt of Chou, Morris, Landrum, as well as freshman guards Didi Richards and Moon Ursin, will all return to provide experience and depth.
The Lady Bears also wrapped up the nation’s top recruiting class and will see several of them arrive on campus in the summer to begin next season’s work.
The season ended on a sour note, ending short of a trip to Columbus, Ohio for the Final Four. But with all the obstacles in life off the court, it was a tremendous and very successful season.
And next season looks even brighter.
“The biggest thing that I’m going to take away from today is the experience that a lot of young people got,” Mulkey said. “I looked out there on that floor one time, and I didn’t have a senior on the floor. I had two freshmen, three sophomores on the floor at one time. And the value of their playing time tonight and throughout the year will make us a better team next year and the year after.”