By Chris Derrett
While nobody at the Ferrell Center was surprised on Monday, the Lady Bears’ basketball team still joined those in attendance in a burst of celebration upon seeing Baylor’s No. 1 seed for this year’s NCAA tournament announced on ESPN.
With a Big 12 regular season and the tournament championship under its belts, the No. 3 ranked Lady Bears will open NCAA tournament play at 6:30 p.m. Sunday against No. 16 seeded Prairie View at the Ferrell Center.
The only part of the Dallas regional that left coach Kim Mulkey and her team curious was the regional’s No. 2 seed. If Baylor wants to reach the Final Four, it might have to beat No. 2 seeded Texas A&M for a fourth time this season.
But not even having the Aggies, whom the Lady Bears beat twice in the regular season and again in the Big 12 tournament, in the same region could spoil Baylor’s excitement over postseason play.
“I can’t ever use the word shocked with the NCAA anymore. You’re too excited; you’re too happy,” Mulkey said. “I don’t think anybody wants to see the same teams that you see from your conference. But it’s the NCAA playoffs.”
ESPN’s Kara Lawson said that despite Baylor and Texas A&M being in the same conference, geographical constraints led the NCAA selection committee to place the Aggies in the Dallas regional. The Pac-10’s No. 1 seeded Stanford and No. 2 seeded UCLA also share a regional.
Mulkey later said the best news she heard all day, however, was a text message she read from senior Melissa Jones. Jones suffered a head injury in a Feb. 27 win at Oklahoma that left her unable to see out of her right eye.
The text message said for the first time since losing vision, Jones could see shapes and colors with the injured eye.
“I don’t know why I wake up randomly in the middle of the night, but every time I do, I just kind of look. It was a shock, like, ‘Whoa, there’s actually something there,’” Jones said. “I can see things right now, but it’s really blurry.”
Jones’ teammates were equally excited to hear the news.
“We were all excited. It’s progress. I’m waiting for that one text to say, ‘Hey, I can see clearly now,” Griner said, singing to the tune of the 1970s hit song.
Mulkey then showed the interview room what made the 10th-year coach so happy. She held four fingers in front of Jones’ right eye, and Jones could see and count them.
The Lady Bears will need Jones’ senior leadership as they take their still young team through another NCAA tournament. Only Jones and sophomore Brittney Griner were regular starters last year, with sophomores Jordan Madden and Nae-Nae Hayden getting a handful of starts.
Sophomore Destiny Williams and junior Brooklyn Pope both transferred into Baylor this season, and freshman point guard Odyssey Sims has never played an NCAA tournament game.
“The stability is we’ve had enough from come behind victories,” Mulkey said. “We’ve had enough competition that it’s prepared us more than maybe a year ago. Maybe a year ago we did all the fighting and clawing we could do, but we were still inexperienced.”
The Lady Bears faced plenty of stiff competition on Saturday against Texas A&M for the Big 12 tournament championship. Griner scored 31 points, a Baylor Big 12 tournament record, in her team’s 61-58 victory.
The game went back-and-forth until Madden’s fastbreak layup gave the Lady Bears a 50-49 advantage. Griner then scored in the post and completed an and-1 opportunity, and Baylor didn’t trail in the last nine minutes.
Texas A&M forced four turnovers and blocked a shot during a 12-0 run to begin the game, but the Lady Bears would not fall that quickly. Brooklyn Pope’s offensive rebound and putback tied the game at 16, and Griner’s jumper in the paint gave Baylor its first lead of the game at 20-18.
At the final buzzer, there had been 12 ties, 17 lead changes and one coach hoping Saturday was not the last time she cuts down nets this season.