By Krista Pirtle
The No. 1 Lady Bears are national champions, beating their opponents by an average of more than 20 points.
It would be one thing if Baylor’s schedule was a walk in the park, but it has the top RPI in the nation, playing against No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Connecticut and No. 8 Tennessee to name a few.
Many people credit this success to 6-foot-8 junior Brittney Griner and only Griner, saying Baylor will fall back into mediocrity once she graduates.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey laughs in response.
“Well, we won a national championship [in 2005] without Brittney Griner. Do I need to say anything else? Brittney has never won one,” Mulkey said earlier this season. “The team, the program, we’re going to continue to go on. We recruit well, one of the top. We may not have that presence of 6-8 or another that dunks, but there will be great players that continue to come here. We’ve proven in 12 years that we’re going to keep on keeping on.”
Alongside Griner in the green and gold are three fellow All-Americans: sophomore Odyssey Sims, juniors Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams.
“While Brittney and Odyssey get all the attention, we’ve got All-Americans around them,” Mulkey said. “Destiny Williams is averaging a double-double. Brooklyn Pope is coming off the bench. They’re not surrounded by average [players] but by All-Americans. That’s what makes us a better team: We have depth, we score, we are not selfish and we accept roles. They came here with the understanding that they would play with Brittney Griner. That tells you how unselfish they are.”
At point guard, Sims brings a spark to the offense and intensity to the defense, leading the Big 12 in steals with three per game.
In the comeback win against then-No. 2 Connecticut, head coach Geno Auriemma noted his team was more focused on containing Sims than Griner, as are other coaches.
“She’s a great penetrator and tremendous one-on-one player and an unselfish kid as well, obviously,” Kansas head coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “She got them going in transition. I mean, they’re a great one-two punch and have been since they played together, absolutely.”
Opposite of Sims are juniors Nae Nae Hayden and Jordan Madden.
“I’ve told Nae-Nae (Hayden) and Jordan (Madden) that they will decide if we make it to a Final Four and win a national championship,” Mulkey said. “You know how they are going to guard Odyssey, you know what you’re going to see with Brittney, but with Nae-Nae and Jordan, they have to accept the challenge to defend on the defensive end, make big shots, get steals and run the floor.”
Senior Terran Condrey comes in off the bench to fill one of these spots.
Condrey silently makes plays and can be counted on to hit the shot to swing the momentum back in favor of Baylor.
The forward position is also overflowing with talent, made up of Pope and Williams.
Pope would start on any other team in the nation but comes off the bench for Mulkey and averages eight points and five boards a contest.
Williams starts and offers a difficult choice to opponents: they can choose to jump from guarding her to helping on Griner, leaving Williams open for an elbow jumper, or help off the weak-side wing, leaving that player an open three or a open driving lane.
“It is hard to keep Destiny Williams off the board when you are trying to keep Griner off the boards; same thing with Brooklyn Pope and it’s the depth in those positions, too,” said Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale.
In short, Griner may be the face of the program, but she has so many solid athletes around her that it’s hard for opposing teams to truly match up.
“I’m just lucky to have the teammates that I have around me,” Griner said. “I wouldn’t trade any of them. Everybody contributes. It’s just different nights that different people step up. That’s the one thing that I love about our team. Somebody will step up if someone else is having an off night. We do a great job on finding each other. Whoever has the hot hand, we will get them the ball.”
Experience and the drive of unfinished business propelled the Lady Bears to the NCAA Championships.