By Parmida Schahhosseini
The No. 9 Lady Bears will face their toughest challenge of the season, as they are underdogs for the first time against No. 5 Kentucky at 6:30 p.m. today at AT&T Stadium. This is a test for the Lady Bears, but the team is embracing the challenge.
“We’ve been preparing for them,” senior guard Odyssey Sims said. “We’re just going to keep playing like we have been and we’ll be ready.”
Kentucky will try to do what no team has done this season – defend Sims. It will be a tough task guarding a versatile player who has her playmaking ability. Sims averages 27.6 points per game, shooting 52.4 percent from the field. Sims and senior guard Makenzie Robertson each shoot above 80 percent from the free throw line. Sims’ ability to take care of the ball has put her team at an advantage. In 189 minutes of play this season, Sims has committed seven turnovers. It will be critical to continue that trend, especially against Kentucky’s tenacious full court press.
Freshman forward Nina Davis is emerging as a consistent scorer with 15.1 points per game while shooting 75 percent from the field. Sophomore guard Niya Johnson has been effective at finding the open man, averaging 7.3 assists per game.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity to play one of the most hard- nosed, aggressive tough basketball programs in the country,” Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Baylor is just really tough and have been ever since Coach Mulkey has taken over that program. It’s a program we have tremendous respect for. It will be a difficult game, we will have to prepare well to have an opportunity to win.”
The Wildcats (8-0) have won 18 straight games against nonconference opponents, including a 69-64 come-from-behind win against No. 4 Louisville. The last time Baylor played Kentucky, Baylor earned a commanding 85-51 win on Nov. 13, 2012. Kentucky is a balanced team with an explosive offense and the defense has the ability to suffocate any team with its full court pressure.
“We can’t play how they want us to play,” Sims said. “We can’t rush the ball on the court and can’t have early turnovers. We just have to play like we normally do and not let their pressure affect us.”
Baylor will have to beat the press by attacking and staying aggressive. Baylor has averaged 11 turnovers a game this season and needs to continue to keep that number down. Preventing extra possessions for Kentucky will be a factor in this game. The dribble penetration will also be key offensively, but the Lady Bears must take care of the ball. It will be critical for Sims and Johnson to make smart passes. The Kentucky defense has given up an average of 61.5 points per game allowing opponents to shoot 37.5 percent from the field.
Baylor has played well offensively this season, averaging 98.9 points per game, outscoring opponents by 44.7 points per game. Sophomore post Kristina Higgins has averaged 8.9 points per game, usually off second chances after a rebound. Higgins leads the team averaging 7.3 per game. Freshman post Khadijiah Cave has been effective inside the paint as well averaging 6.7 rebounds per game while adding 6.7 points per game. Freshman guard Imani Wright is second on the team behind Sims in 3-point field goal percentage, shooting 34.1 percent. Sophomore forward Chardonae Fuqua’ has been effective shooting the ball at 66.7 percent.
Kentucky averages 94.5 points per game beating teams by an average of 33 points. The Wildcats are shooting 47.6 percent from the field, but Baylor only allows its opponents to shoot 31.9 percent from the field. The Bears defense also limits opponents to 54.1 points per game.
The Wildcats aren’t shy about shooting from the perimeter, making 39.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Baylor will have to play sound defense with five players averaging in double-digit points. Senior forward DeNesha Stallworth leads the team with 14 points per game while shooting 58.1 percent from the field. Senior forward Samarie Walker averages a double-double with 10.3 points and 10 rebounds. Senior guard Kastine Evans is second on the team with 12.1 points per game and is tied with Walker for the most number of steals at 14. Junior guards Jennifer O’Neill averages 11.1 points per game while Bria Goss adds 10 points per game. Senior guard Bernisha Pinkett has been a threat in the perimeter, shooting 52.9 percent with Walker shooting 50 percent.
Kentucky plays unselfish basketball as the team averages 19.4 assists.
Baylor’s supporting cast must step up and play fundamental basketball. The Wildcats thrive on turnovers because not only does it give them an extra possession, but also it puts the pace of the game in their hands.
Playing at AT&T stadium will be different, but Baylor is relishing the chance to play there.
“It’s going to be pretty special,” Robertson said. “I don’t know if any of us have played in an arena that size. It’s going to be a different atmosphere.”
Playing in such a large stadium, the depth perception of the rim might be an issue in this game, but Baylor will treat this as an ordinary road game.
“I think it will be just the same as any other game, you get to go in the gym, get your shot up and just adjust how you need to and figure it out,” Robertson said.