By Matt Larsen
Whether it be national No. 1 against No. 5/6, Big 12 No. 1 against Big 12 No. 2 or the conference’s two leading scorers pitted against each other in the paint, Baylor will face its biggest conference challenge of the season at Texas A&M at noon Sunday.
After a 64-51 win over Tech last Saturday, in which the Lady Bears got outrebounded and trailed at halftime for the first time since the Connecticut game Nov. 16, head coach Kim Mulkey voiced her displeasure in the effort underneath the basket.
She expected to use the week of practice to refocus her team for their trip to College Station.
“I am sure it won’t be a fun practice when we go back,” she said after beating Texas Tech.
The Aggies bring the toughest road test for Mulkey’s team since that loss to the Huskies.
Undefeated thus far in conference play, the Aggies carry an 18-1 overall record, a win on the road against No. 12/13 Oklahoma and a bitter taste from their last matchup with the Lady Bears. Then 16th-ranked Baylor upset then 12th-ranked A&M, snatching a 65-63 win out from under their feet in College Station last February.
Last year, then-freshman post Brittney Griner took her team on her shoulders. She finished that game with 22 points, 21 rebounds and the go-ahead bucket.
This year Griner comes with a healthier and more developed cast of teammates around her.
Senior guard Melissa Jones and sophomore forwards Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams provide a wealth of rebounding presence in the paint, each averaging more than six boards a contest.
Meanwhile, freshman Odyssey Sims has established herself as a consistent outside threat, something the Lady Bears lacked last season. Sims follows only Griner in points per game (13.3) and leads the team in 3-point percentage (.481) and attempts (77).
The Aggies, too, return with a more developed core.
To say that core is led by senior post Danielle Adams would be an understatement.
A&M head coach Gary Blair set a challenge before Adams prior to the season.
“Leadership and dependability are traits of big-time players and Danielle has all the skills,” he said. “This is her year to step up.”
Adams stepped up in just about every aspect of the game.
The 6-foot-1, forward/center blend not only leads her team in points per game, but also leads the conference with 22.9 a contest. (Griner follows right behind her in the Big 12 with 22.2).
She hauls in a team-high 8.4 rebounds a game and has managed an unusual combination 31 blocks and 22 steals on the year.
As if her work in the paint were not enough to lead her team, she also has attempted more 3-pointers than anyone else on the squad (64), connecting on 34 percent of them.
Junior guard Tyra White picks up outside where Adams leaves off.
White, 6-foot, adds 13.9 points per game and boasts a .400 3-point percentage.
As a team, the Aggies look to capitalize off turnovers.
They lead the Big 12 in steals, picking opponents’ pockets more than 12 times a game.
The Aggies’ conference-leading turnover margin of +10.5 is nearly twice that of all Big 12 opponents. Baylor sits at No. 3 in the Big 12 with a +4.95 turnover margin.
Coming off one of the least satisfying wins this season, the Lady Bears know they can’t afford to come out slow on the road.
“We have to come with more intensity,” Griner said.
Her team’s focus aside, the co-captain will look to carry over a mindset she embodied both last week against Tech and last year against the Aggies.
“On the inside I just had to do whatever I do to help out our team, whether it is scoring or passing to the open players.”
Last year, her team needed her to score.
This year they will need to outscore the only player in the conference who averages more points a game than Griner does.
Somebody will have to score, and the 6-foot-8 sophomore post should not be surprised to find all eyes on her come noon Sunday.