Correction: The Dallas Region NCAA games are played at the American Airlines Center
By Matt Larsen
It may be the Lady Bears’ third consecutive year advancing to the third round of the NCAA Tourney, but head coach Kim Mulkey believes this year’s Sweet 16 venture against Wisconsin-Green Bay Sunday at 8 p.m. at the American Airlines Center in Dallas tastes just as sweet.
“Is it as sweet today as it was 11 years ago making it to the first NCAA tournament? You bet it is,” she said. “Are there more expectations? Yes. That comes with the territory. I think this team has handled the expectations very well.”
While the No. 1 seed Lady Bears may find themselves on the road to Dallas carrying a duffel bag in one hand and big expectations in the other, it doesn’t make the opponent standing in the way of those expectations any easier.
The No. 5 seed Phoenix has dropped just one game this season.
That loss came by three points on the road against now No. 25/23 Marquette.
Their strength of schedule may be less than what the Lady Bears encountered in the Big 12, but that does not reduce Mulkey’s respect for the Horizon League champs.
“I don’t care who you play,” the 11-year coach said. “If you’ve only lost one basketball game, you’re pretty darn good.”
Green Bay journeys south for its first-ever Sweet 16 appearance, fresh off a 65-56 win over No. 4 seed Michigan State in Wichita last Tuesday.
In typical Phoenix fashion (they sit second nationally in assists with 20 per game), spreading the ball around allowed Green Bay to find who was hot.
It just happened to be sophomore Adrian Ritchie coming off the bench against the Spartans. She combined with junior Julie Wojta to drop 38 of the team’s points.
“They are very balanced,” Mulkey said. “You’ve got them one right after the other almost averaging the same minutes and same number of points.”
Wojta falls second on the list of Green Bay’s top three scorers, who all average within half a point of each other.
Senior Kayla Tetschlag leads her team with 13.9 a game; Wojta follows closely behind with 13.8 a contest; and senior Celeste Hoewisch puts up 13.4 a match.
The Phoenix spreads the court and uses its athleticism to make up for a lack of height.
“They take you off the dribble very well,” Mulkey said. “We’re going to have to get down in a stance and we’re going to have to play good on-ball defense.”
Big 12 blocks leader, sophomore Brittney Griner, welcomes the look-to-drive mentality, even if she doesn’t manage to block every layup.
“I like teams that don’t shy from coming in and continuing to play their game,” Griner said after the West Virginia game Tuesday. “If they want to drive, they’re going to drive, so I have a lot of respect for teams and players that keep coming no matter if I block it or alter it.”
Driving won’t be the only threat the Lady Bears should be concerned about, though.
Of the seven players who play more 15 minutes a game, all have made at least 15 threes and all but one shoot above .300 from behind the arc. The only key contributor who doesn’t, shoots .297.
Defensively, Green Bay ranks No. 2 in the nation in turnover margin and Mulkey anticipates facing a mix of zone and man-to-man looks.
Yet, as every Baylor opponent knows, Brittney Griner must be accounted for in a defensive game plan and on paper Green Bay enters the matchup unable to match the height of the 6-foot-8 post.
Griner led all scorers with 30 points against the Mountaineers.
Senior Melissa Jones managed to tie freshman Odyssey Sims for second-most points on the team Tuesday as she played with an injured right eye in her final game in the Ferrell Center.
Jones suffered a concussion and lost her vision diving for a loose ball in the Oklahoma game Feb. 27.
The captain continues to play with limited vision, but refuses to think too much about the injury.
“There’s only one way to look and that’s forward,” Jones said.
Jones and the Bears will depart for Dallas at 4:30 p.m. today with a send-off rally at the Ferrell Center open to the Baylor community.