By Jeffrey Swindoll
OKLAHOMA CITY – In their opening game of the Big 12 championship tournament, the Lady Bears cruised past the Kansas Jayhawks 81-47. Baylor (27-4) faces Oklahoma State (23-7) at 2 p.m. Sunday in the semifinal. OSU beat Iowa State on Saturday 67-57.
Baylor struggled to defend against KU’s size down low, but cleaned up the Jayhawks’ perimeter play in the first half. Kansas forward Chelsea Gardner scored 11 of KU’s 20 first half points. The Jayhawks’ guards got shut down early, only scoring two baskets in the first half. Coming off of an overtime thriller against Kansas State on Friday, the Jayhawks we’re put under high pressure from the get go. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey occasionally elected to apply full court press to catch Kansas off-guard and force bad decisions from the Jayhawks.
“We knew we had to start off quick and energetic,” sophomore guard Niya Johnson said. “It first started with Odyssey pressuring the defense, and we just followed her lead.”
Earlier in the season, KU dealt Baylor its first loss in conference basketball. It was a loss that Mulkey said was even worse than the Lady Bears’ losses against top teams– Connecticut and Kentucky. That game saw Sune Agbuke foul out with over 8 minutes to play in the second half, and Sims did not see much time on the floor because of her own foul trouble, and when she was on the floor she did shoot above a positive percentage.
“We still remember the loss that we took, so we felt like we needed to start fast and keep it going,” freshman guard Imani Wright said.
It was hard to believe Baylor ever lost to this same Kansas team. There were no injuries or key players out. Both teams were at full strength, but Baylor was head and shoulders above Kansas in shooting, rebounding, turnovers, free throws and so on. It was an all-around dominant performance on defense and offense.
The lead grew above 20 points in the first half already. Mulkey took advantage of that lead to rest her players for the upcoming games in the Big 12 tournament as well as the NCAA tournament on the horizon. The performance of the Lady Bears did not diminish when the bench players were put in, Mulkey said. Baylor’s rhythm and dominant pace of the game continued even with seniors Odyssey Sims and Makenzie Robertson off the floor.
Freshman forward Nina Davis took care of putting away the Jayhawks already in the first half, scoring on multiple and-one plays and leading all scorers with 11 before halftime. Davis’ execution allowed for Baylor to exploit the lead they had over Kansas.
Being able to rest those players is a huge benefit, not only for the starters, but is also a great way to get the younger players experience in the tournament that may come in handy later on, Mulkey said.
It’s so valuable [having the luxury to rest starters], but it wasn’t just resting them,” Mulkey said. “It’s what the other players did while the starters were resting. I saw a very mature team out there with that many young players extend the lead and get steals and deflections and defend, and that’s when you’re really, really pleased.”
OSU is in the way of another trip to the conference tournament final for the Lady Bears. Baylor beat the Cowgirls in both meetings this season– an overtime nail-biter in Stillwater, and a solid victory in Waco. However, considering the game is in Oklahoma City, Mulkey admits the game will spiritually be a home game for the Cowgirls and the OSU fans on Sunday. The Lady Bears have proven they can grind out the road wins on the road, but they will have to go to the well once again as they face a quick OSU team led by all-conference guard Tiffany Bias.