By Jeffrey Swindoll
Monday night’s game against California saw a subtle but significant message sent out by the Lady Bears’ freshmen. It was a frantic first half that had lead changes swinging like a pendulum between Baylor and Cal.
Baylor’s offense was clearly struggling to penetrate Cal’s disciplined defense in halfcourt and transition. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, trying to find a jolt for her team in this critical single-elimination game of the NCAA tournament, subbed out all but one of her starters (sophomore guard Niya Johnson), replacing them with underclassmen players with over six minutes left in the first half.
It was a gutsy move from Mulkey, but she stuck to her guns. Freshman guard Imani Wright stepped in for all-American senior guard Odyssey Sims and freshman post Khadijah Cave stepped in for all-conference freshman forward Nina Davis.
Leaving the team’s two top scorers on the bench could have had detrimental effects for the Lady Bears in such a high-stakes game. Contrary to what may have been expected from putting five underclassmen on the court against a quality opponent, the Lady Bears offense actually had a better rhythm than it had with the starters on the floor in the first half. Those young players were the reason the Lady Bears led by one at the half.
Mulkey’s decision to take out four of her starters was not entirely because of the offensive struggle the Lady Bears had in the first half. It was still a risky move to not alternate Sims and Davis on the court in do-or-die game, considering Davis and Sims were in foul trouble.
Mulkey and the starters have developed a much greater trust of the young players, and the underclassmen are peaking in confidence. This recent jolt in confidence has come at an opportune time for the Lady Bears, who will face Kentucky Saturday for the second time this season in Notre Dame, Ind. The first time the Lady Bears faced Kentucky this season was in a quadruple overtime 133-130 loss on Dec. 6 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“I think that we can take a lot from the [Kentucky game],” senior guard Makenzie Robertson said. “We’ve gotten a lot better since then. We have to make sure we do the small things.”
Much earlier in the season, the Lady Bears played Kentucky in one of their biggest games of the season, and for many of those freshman, it was the biggest game so far in their career.
Sims scored 47 points, six assists and four rebounds, but fouled out in the quadruple-overtime loss to Kentucky.
“Both teams really have changed a lot,” Mulkey said. “I think our freshmen are certainly much better now, and they’re bigger contributors for us on the floor than [against Kentucky].”
The Lady Bears went into uncharted territory that night against Kentucky. Those young players had never played with Sims out of the game for good.
At the time, Kentucky was ranked No. 5 in the nation and the Lady Bears were No. 9. Going to four overtimes proved those young players can hang with the best, even with Sims on the bench.
“I knew they had it in them,” Sims said. “I don’t think they had enough confidence in themselves starting out the season. That game was really a growing up and teaching moment for them, but also for me. For us to only lose by three without me being in the game, that shows a lot. They can play without me and they can win without me.”
With all the experience the freshmen acquired since the first Kentucky game, the Lady Bears are stronger than ever before.
It should be a much different contest between Baylor and Kentucky on Saturday.
The No. 2 seed Lady Bears face the No. 3 seed Kentucky Wildcats at 11 a.m. Saturday at the University of Notre Dame’s Joyce Center in Notre Dame, Ind.