By Matt Larsen
One down, two to go for the No. 2 Lady Bears as they look to emerge from a dangerous three-game stretch of non-conference matchups that will bring Minnesota to Waco this Sunday at 1 p.m. and No. 9 Tennessee to the Ferrell Center Dec. 14.
“The three that we have, it doesn’t get any better than that,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “You are getting one from the Big East, you’re getting one from the Big Ten and you’re getting one from the SEC.”
The first of that three-game home stand that Mulkey sees as a good gauge, came Wednesday when Baylor downed No. 16 Notre Dame 76-65.
With nine non-conference games down and five to go before Big 12 play, the No. 2 Lady Bears find themselves at 8-1, the only loss coming by one point at No. 1 Connecticut.
Though unranked, Minnesota owns a 4-3 record with its most recent loss coming on the road to San Diego State, 61-59.
A pair of veteran guards, junior Kiara Buford and senior China Antoine, leads the Golden Gophers.
Buford carries the scoring weight averaging 16.6 points a game, but gets some help fro, the bench as sophomore guard Leah Cotton is putting up 14.4 points a game without having started any of the first seven games.
Antoine adds 8.4 of her own points per game, but specializes in dishing it out and shooting the three. She is 15-28 (.536) from behind the arc and has racked up 43 assists in seven contests.
But if the Gophers enjoy cashing in on their 3-point chances, the Volunteers (7-1) take enough deep shots to almost make a living from 3-point land.
Tennessee features guards Meighan Simmons and Angie Bjorklund, a freshman-senior duo that have combined for 40 treys. They have each attempted over 50 threes in eight games so far this season.
While they have not faced a team with well-known sharpshooters yet, the Bears have defended the three well holding their opponents to a .223 percentage from behind the arc.
Meanwhile, the Bear’s have developed a number of weapons from the perimeter that provide the inside-outside threat needed to keep defenses on their heels.
Melissa Jones has been .500 on her 3-pointers, but believes the guards create opportunities for each other when they drive and kick it back to find an open teammate spotting up in the corner.
Though they had a recent slipup against No. 12 Georgetown, Tennessee has consistently been a powerhouse in women’s basketball under Hall of Fame coach Pat Summit.
Although she left Connecticut without a win, sophomore post Brittney Griner savors every minute of the big games and looks forward to the chances to run the floor against top 10 teams.
Summitt and the Volunteers got the better of fellow Hall of Famer Mulkey and the Lady Bears last November in a 74-65 win in Knoxville.
The elite coaching matchup, however, is the last thing on Mulkey’s mind.
“It really never enters my mind that I’m coaching against Pat Summitt or Geno [Auriemma, UConn coach],” she said. “I’ve always believed this: coaches are only as good as their players. The challenge is I am probably not going to outcoach them. I never go into a game and it’s me versus another coach. I want to go into a game and be able to look at the people I coach and say, ‘I have never put them in a position where we weren’t prepared.”
After hosting Tennessee, Baylor travels to the Bahamas for the Bahama’s Sunsplash Shootout where they will face Clemson and Syracuse on Dec. 20 and 21.
Then they host one last non-conference game against Texas Pan-American on Dec. 30 before opening up Big 12 play on Jan. 8 against Iowa State.