By Matt Larsen
The Lady Bears showed why they sit at No. 1 in the country Sunday afternoon, overcoming a No. 5/6 Texas A&M squad 63-60 in front of a record Reed Arena crowd who could not have asked for much more from two of the country’s best teams.
“We love it,” head coach Kim Mulkey said of the loud, nerve-racking environment. “That’s what it should be everywhere you go. To think that [head coach Gary Blair’s] got that many seniors and that many juniors and we battled. It wasn’t pretty; we’re far from a finished product. But we hung in there long enough, and we found a way to win.”
Texas A&M controlled the tip and the first few minutes of play, jumping to a 3-0 lead.
They held onto that lead until Baylor’s co-captains, senior Melissa Jones and sophomore Brittney Griner, found their way to the basket for the tying and go-ahead layups to take a 15-13 lead.
The Lady Bears and Aggies went back-and-forth until sophomore Brooklyn Pope hit two free throws and a breakaway layup off a steal that sparked an 11-0 run for Baylor with just under seven minutes left in the first half.
Pope and company capitalized on their trips to the line in the first half, sinking 12 of 13, and took a 36-26 lead into the half.
On the defensive end Baylor held an Aggie squad that usually shoots 47 percent from the field to a 28.6 field goal percentage during the first 20 minutes.
“It comes from athletes on the perimeter; it comes from steals too,” Mulkey said. “Some of it is [Griner]. It’s just a commitment that we’re going to guard you. We lead the country in field goal percentage defense. The shots they made, they had to work for.”
The Aggies came out of the locker room and went on a 13-6 run, closing the gap to 39-42 before freshman Odyssey Sims provided an answer with a drive and layup.
The point guard seemed to have an answer every time her team needed it during the second half, putting up 10 of her squad’s 13 points during a critical nine-minute stretch.
“She plays beyond her years, and I’m blessed to have her,” Mulkey said. “We didn’t execute very well, but that’s to be expected against that kind of defense, this kind of atmosphere and a freshman point guard. When all else fails, she knows how to find the rim, and she did.”
The Lady Bears gave up their lead when freshman Karla Gilbert sank a pair of free throws to give her team a 48-46 advantage with 9:11 to play.
Sophomore Kimetria Hayden drained a three in response, and Texas A&M would not lead again in the game.
The Aggies kept it uncomfortably close the rest of the game, however, keeping the 13,162 fans loud and on their feet.
“They gave us their best game, here with a big crowd to feed off of,” Griner said. “It was just back-and-forth, possession by possession.”
Though multiple players remained on the court with four fouls, Texas A&M senior Danielle Adams was the only one to earn her fifth, fouling out at the 3:53 mark.
The conference’s leading scorer ended the afternoon with 13 points.
Reed Arena reached possibly the loudest point when senior guard Sydney Colson connected on a 3-point attempt to tie it up at 60 with just 49 seconds left to play.
Sims gave her final answer of the day though when she drove the lane and laid it in, giving A&M 26 seconds to work with.
“I knew the game was on the line, and I had the ball in my hands,” the freshman point guard said. “I couldn’t run from the ball. So we cleared out the lane, I went off a ball screen, and I just created an opportunity for me to get the shot off.”
Jones made it 63-60 with a free throw after being fouled while scooping up a loose ball knocked away from a driving Aggie.
A&M saw a couple more looks but failed to convert on two 3-point attempts as the closing seconds ticked off the clock.
Blair didn’t need many words to describe the game.
“It was just a good ball game,” he said. “Our fans, right now, they should be buying tickets in Waco for the rematch. Take your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day and go to Waco.”