By Daniel C. Houston
Less than a day after winning her second national championship as Baylor’s head coach, a confident Kim Mulkey returned to the Ferrell Center Wednesday with her Lady Bears basketball team and told a large crowd of fans to prepare for another Final Four appearance in 2013.
“We were not afraid to have expectations placed upon us [this year],” Mulkey said, “and I’ll tell you this: You better get your tickets to New Orleans. See you next year.”
Mulkey’s confidence was influenced by the fact that all five of her starting players — including her two stars, junior center Brittney Griner and sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims — will likely return next year to play for the program.
Mulkey, who typically prefers her teams fly under the media radar, said she took a different approach to motivating her players this year than she has in seasons past.
“I like to play the underdog role,” Mulkey said. “I like to sneak in the back door, beat you and leave the arena. But we couldn’t hide how talented we were. We knew expectations were being placed upon us by the media and even by [the fans], so we embraced it.”
The Lady Bears finished the season with the first 40-0 record in the history of men’s or women’s college basketball, a fact Baylor President Ken Starr drew attention to when he addressed the crowd.
“Baylor University has accomplished what no athletic program in Division 1 history has ever accomplished,” Starr said. “Never — never.”
The ceremony included video highlights from each round of the Lady Bears’ NCAA tournament run, as well as recognition of awards individual players earned throughout the season.
Griner, who was named the Associated Press player of the year and the most outstanding player in the NCAA tournament, said in a press conference after Wednesday’s event that it took more than her dominating presence on the court for the Lady Bears to win the national championship.
Mulkey said she challenged other players like junior guards Kimetria “Nae-Nae” Hayden and Jordan Madden to step into roles they were initially uncomfortable with.
Mulkey said they worked hard and were a big part of why the team performed at such a high level.
But Griner said all the pressure from a long season of high expectations fell away when the clock reached zero and the team could finally celebrate a national title.
“It was awesome,” Griner said. “Before I even got back to coach to get my hug, I was already teary-eyed, and at the end of the game … we didn’t sit down. We were still standing up crying and celebrating, so it was awesome.”vBut Wednesday’s celebrations did not go without a hitch.
As Mulkey first walked up to the podium to address the crowd, members of the NoZe Brotherhood, a secret society that pokes fun at Baylor administrators and students, rushed on stage uninvited and claimed the microphone.
The NoZe brothers made all players on the Lady Bears squad honorary members of their organization, giving them the collective name “Bro. 40-and-NoZe,” in the style of their own individual pseudonyms.
They also awarded Mulkey with their trademark disguise: a pair of glasses with a fake nose.
“This will go with my crooked lip,” Mulkey joked as she put on the glasses, to audience laughter and cheers.
Mulkey coached the Final Four fighting through a form of facial paralysis called Bell’s Palsy, which left her with limited control of the right side of her face.
With all of her starters likely returning and a group of highly rated high school recruits committed to joining the team in the fall, Mulkey believes her team has a chance to be even better next year.
“The more depth, the better we are,” Mulkey said.
“The more depth, the better the competition. [Next year’s freshmen] knew when they signed to come here what their goals were, and they wanted to play for a national championship, and they wanted to continue the tradition in our women’s basketball program. The great players aren’t afraid of any competition; they want to be a part of it.”