By Jeffrey Swindoll
The No. 6 Lady Bears capped off their extraordinary 2015 season with a 75-65 win over Texas Tech on Monday at the Ferrell Center. Baylor looked to bounce back from last week, which saw the team’s first two losses of 2015 against Oklahoma and Iowa State.
The two losses came just after the Lady Bears (27-3, 16-2) already clinched their fifth-straight regular season conference title. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey noted youth and a little bit of mental fatigue as factors in Baylor’s recent form.
Mulkey went into Monday’s game with the intention of shaking up her lineup. With the conference title already clinched, Mulkey had the insurance to experiment with her roster against Texas Tech (15-15, 5-13).
Junior forward Chardonae Fuqua was in the starting five for the first time in her career. The game featured a multitude of less-experienced players from Baylor’s roster.
Because of the amount of changes and liberty Mulkey took with her lineup, a 26-point lead turned into a single-digit lead in the last minute of the game for the Lady Bears. After leading 39-20 at the half, it looked like it would be another blowout for the Lady Bears. However, the Red Raiders made enough jump-shots and free throws in the second half to make Baylor’s regular season finale closer than expected in the end. Monday’s game finished with a total of 50 fouls between the two teams.
“We fouled too much, and that’s a part why we lost the lead,” Mulkey said. “We started the second half fouling a post player on a three – part of that’s communication. That’s a problem we’ve had all year. I’ve told them many times in good games and close games that they’re going to get burned if they don’t communicate. That’s something we work on every day.”
Strong efforts from Mulkey’s regulars in the starting lineup pushed the Lady Bears in the final moments of the game. Sophomore guard Alexis Prince and sophomore guard Imani Wright scored 12 points. Sophomore forward Davis was effective early in the game with her drives to the basket, but Texas Tech found a way to block her out from impacting the game as much in the second half. At times, Davis was triple-teamed in the paint, leaving her no space to work towards the basket.
Baylor’s impromptu full-court press caught the Red Raiders off guard in the first few possessions. The Lady Bears brought the crowd to its feet after forcing two-straight steals off Texas Tech’s inbounds pass, ending with a Davis and-one and a roaring Ferrell Center crowd.
“We were just trying to start the game with more energy,” junior point guard Johnson said. “We were just trying to start the game attacking, changing up the defense and giving them the unexpected, and I thought we did pretty well at that tonight.”
The Lady Bears’ exciting, full-speed playing style helped earn them a 18-4 lead in the first seven minutes of the first half. Mulkey’s substitutions in the second half obstructed Baylor’s momentum from the first half.
“I just thought we needed to rest some players, needed more energy, we needed to press and that’s a good lineup to press with,” Mulkey said. “Also, it was just to shake up mainly to get out of the monotony of getting off to slow starts, and I thought they really did good. We were fine until the second half, and then everybody got complacent. I just played a lot of players, and that’s something I wanted to do. Sometimes when you do that, you just get out of sync and rhythm.”
Johnson, the nation’s leader in assists, broke two Baylor milestones on Monday. She became the Big 12’s single-season assist leader with 255 on the season after earning 11 against the Red Raiders. Johnson also broke her own school record for assists in a season, surpassing her previous number of 244 assists in the 2013-14 season.
“Niya’s one of the best point guards in the country,” Davis said. “Her high basketball-IQ is amazing. Sometimes she sees players that are open and we’re not sure she can see us, but she finds a way to thread the needle. She’s a great point guard and I’m glad she’s ours.”
Davis posted her 60th career double-digit scoring game on Monday with 22 points against Texas Tech.
The 2015 Big 12 Conference Tournament begins on Friday in Dallas. Games are yet to be finalized, but the Lady Bears will be the No. 1 seed. The Lady Bears won last season’s conference tournament over West Virginia at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla.