By Jeffrey Swindoll
The No. 11 Lady Bears overcame early first-half struggles to beat UT-Pan American Wednesday night at the Ferrell Center, 96-42. Sophomore forward Nina Davis finished the night with a team-leading 31 points, just one point shy of her career record.
UTPA (6-4) hung tight with the heavily favored Lady Bears (5-1) in the beginning chunk of the first half. The Lady Bears put themselves in tough situations with errant passes, poor shooting and overall lack of chemistry.
For the first ten minutes of the first half, Baylor had trouble with UTPA’s press defense. The Broncs forced the Lady Bears to take low-percentage shots. Even when the Broncs put the Lady Bears at the foul line, Baylor could not capitalize. One advantage for the Lady Bears that was evident from the start of the game was Baylor’s height advantage.
UTPA took a small lead twice in the first half, which Baylor had not experienced very much of when playing at home this season. The Lady Bears quickly snatched back the lead at 14-12 and proceeded to go on a double-digit run. Baylor rectified many issues from their first 10 minutes of play and buried the Broncs 55-22 at the half.
“I thought in the first half we got off to a slow start, but credit to Pan-American,” Mulkey said. “That program is so much improved. [UTPA head coach Larry Tidwell] just has them playing hard. When they can play A&M to two and only lose to Texas by 17, we were ready and we respected them.
Davis continues to excel in the paint for the Lady Bears. Mulkey got just about everything she wanted out of Davis on Wednesday night, and took her out of the game with 11 minutes left in the second half. Davis shot 13-15 from the field and 5-8 in free throws. She also contributed with 4 rebounds.
“Just from the Kentucky game until now, I feel that we’ve really grown as a team. We’re pretty much putting the pieces together. Everybody’s stepping up and doing their part. I think we’re going to be alright as we go down the road.”
Junior guard Niya Johnson was taken out shortly after Davis for the same reason. Because of Johnson’s exceptional play, Mulkey was able to clear her bench for additional early-season experimentation. Davis and Johnson have proven to be Mulkey’s go-to duo this season. Johnson ran the floor cleanly and effectively with 10 assists and 0 turnovers.
“I was just trying to get my groove back from the game I missed,” Johnson said. “I just had to go out there and play comfortable, help my teammates and get this ‘W’.”
Once again, Mulkey’s players lower on the depth chart would get valuable minutes at the Ferrell Center. Rather than see a drop-off in points and efficiency, the Lady Bears continued to roll the Broncs. The Lady Bears flexed the muscles of this team’s depth. Tidwell went on to say that Baylor may have a team better than ever this season.
Scoring was rampant for the Lady Bears. Just two players on Mulkey’s 10-man roster did not score Wednesday night, senior post Sune Agbuke (12 minutes played) and sophomore guard Ieshia Small (24 minutes played). Sophomore post Khadijah Cave had the second most points in the game behind Davis with 18, followed by junior post Kristina Higgins (15), sophomore guard Imani Wright (11), senior guard Alexis Prince (8), Johnson (7), freshman forward Dekeiya Cohen (4) and junior forward Chardonae Fuqua’ (2).
“I think as [the Lady Bears] they get more experienced and play together, and I know the the Australian (Wallace) will be back soon, I think this may be Kim’s best team,” Tidwell said. “Depth-wise and everything, my gosh, they’ve got it at the one through the five. They’re deep and they’re talented and they’re well-coached.”
Mulkey has said multiple times that she is not 100 percent sure how she will play her team this season, but that is not for a lack of options. It is quite the contrary. Mulkey said the number of combinations of lineups and sheer amount of scoring talent on the team makes it exciting yet difficult to settle on a consolidated game plan.
“As you can see, we’ve got a lot of people that can score,” Mulkey said. “We’re playing a lot of kids. If you add Kristy Wallace to the mix, we’ve got one more game without her, and I just think this team’s getting better every time they hit the floor.”
Next up, the Lady Bears hit the road to face Ole Miss (6-1) in Oxford, Miss., at 2 p.m. on Sunday.