By Jeffrey Swindoll
Baylor women’s basketball has been one of the most consistent sports in the school’s athletic program in past six years or so. It seemed as if those high points would be counter-balanced with rebuilding years.
With a young, undeveloped team, a Big 12 conference championship was not really in the script for the Lady Bears this season. Yet, just a few days removed from the Lady Bears clinching the Big 12 regular season title with every reason to believe Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey can lead her team to another deep run in the NCAA tournament in a couple weeks.
Mulkey admitted she had no idea how she would line up her team this season. She knew she had great players like sophomore forward Nina Davis and junior guard Niya Johnson, but even how those players would contribute was in question at the beginning of the season. It was like Mulkey was opening puzzle for the first time this season and started by searching for the corner pieces to frame the solution.
At first Mulkey was distraught by the issue of her team not being a overly vocal group. She searched for a flag-bearer to no avail. This was a bit of blessing disguise that become an overarching theme for the Lady Bears this season.
“I don’t have just that one dominant player, that one big leader. So they’re all just kind of chipping in and doing their part,” Mulkey said. “Improvement is shown in a lot of areas, but we still have a long way to go. Sometimes I have to make people and myself realize we’re [ranked in the top 10], [27-3], but my gosh we’re still young and still have so much more to improve on. We’ll just keep working, keep recruiting and hope to stay up there and maintain the level we’re used to playing at.”
If one was to pinpoint exactly who the impact players were for the Lady Bears this season, they would probably end up on sophomore Nina Davis and junior guard Niya Johnson. Mulkey used seven different starting lineups in the 2014-15 season, but those two players started every game. Much of the Lady Bears success this season rested on the shoulders of Davis and Johnson.
Davis completed a record-breaking season for herself in many areas this year. She averaged approximately 20 points a game, scoring in double figures 29 times in 30 games, 18 of which were 20 or more points. Johnson leads the country in assists and broke single-season records in the Big 12 and on Baylor’s all-time list of assists.
Baylor’s attack needed more than just two players doing the work though. The Lady Bears would not have been successful without the improvement of the rest of the roster, Mulkey said. Freshmen players like Kristy Wallace and Dekeiya Cohen ended up being staples in the Lady Bears’ lineup. Wallace earned a starting role early on in the season and maintained it for the most part. Cohen impressed Mulkey with her reserve minutes at the ends of games so much that she eventually functioned as a favored alternative for the semi-injured senior post Sune Agbuke.
Sophomores Imani Wright and Khadijiah Cave also played big parts in the Lady Bears’ extraordinary season. Returning from a season in the shadows cast by Odyssey Sims and Makenzie Robertson last year, Wright was given room to blossom this year in a more open field of point guards.
Wright had clearly improved her jump-shot from last season and increased her confidence level. Cave often found herself in the starting lineup because of her athletic superiority over Agbuke and junior post Kristina Higgins.
“The gelling has been tremendous. This team, they are who they are,” Mulkey said. “What I mean by that is sometimes as a coach you can make them more vocal. You can make them talk more. You can help them become a leader. This one challenges me because they’re very low-key, but they’re competitive. So I can’t misread a Nina or a Niya and think they’re not competitive and giving their all.”
The Lady Bears faltered in two of their final three games, snapping an unprecedented 25-game winning streak and an undefeated run in conference-play. Both conference losses came after the Lady Bears had already clinched the Big 12 title.
“You’re going to see [fatigue] this time of year,” Mulkey said. “You have desperate teams who have to play out of their mind to host, to even get to go to the tournament, not to mention that there’s Baylor across the front of the jersey. Not to mention that we already won the championship. There are so many things I could come up with – youth. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe the team’s tired. I don’t know, but it’s not anything any different than you see happening everywhere.”
The Lady Bears are the No. 1 seed in the 2015 Big 12 Conference Tournament hosted at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Lady Bears look to win their fifth-straight conference tournament title.
“I have trust in my teammates and I believe we’re ready for the post-season,” Davis said. “Honestly, we don’t have a choice. It’s here now. We can be beat on any given night, which I think we’ve opened our eyes to in last few games. I just feel that at the young age that we’re at that you shouldn’t be tired. You should be excited to play in this part of the season. This is what you live for. It’s ‘March Madness’.”