UPDATED: 10:47 p.m. March 23, 2015
POSTED: 4:39 p.m. March 22, 2015
By Jeffrey Swindoll
All has gone according to plan for the two-seed Lady Bears in the NCAA Tournament after commanding first- and second- round performances against Northwestern State and Arkansas at the Ferrell Center this weekend.
Head coach Kim Mulkey’s young, bright squad was relentless in its pursuit of the program’s seventh-straight Sweet 16 appearance. The Lady Bears won both games by at least a 30-point margin.
In the men’s tournament, there are upsets and widespread parity across the board more so than in the women’s tournament, Mulkey said. She is speaking from firsthand experience. The Lady Bears were in the comfort of their home to begin the tournament, unlike many of the teams whom began and likely ended their NCAA campaign in the first or second round.
It would have taken a lot to upset the Lady Bears, who did not lose a game at home this season, on top of the clear superiority they held over the three other teams in Waco this weekend.
Arkansas and Northwestern State can attest to the disadvantage they faced playing on Baylor’s home floor. Northwestern State never saw the light of day in the first round. Baylor’s size alone was enough to stomp the Lady Demons. The game was over before halftime.
The Razorbacks gave Baylor fans some worry at the start of their game against the Lady Bears on Sunday. Arkansas traded the lead back and forth with Baylor in the opening five minutes of the game, eventually making it 14-11 in their favor.
The officials whistled for a timeout due to commercial break and the Lady Bears gathered on their sideline to assess the situation. Baylor regrouped, took back the lead and never gave it back again, ending the half on a 30-7 run for a 41-21 score at halftime. In the end, Baylor’s athleticism and depth wore down Arkansas’ eight-player rotation.
“The first five minutes we came out unfocused, and we were just letting them drive and get rebounds and do whatever they wanted to,” sophomore forward Nina Davis. “After the first media timeout, we kind of settled down and got back to our principles and settled down after that.”
The mostly inexperienced Lady Bears got the job done and did it convincingly. There were not any significant miscues or glaring problems that stood from the opening two rounds by the Lady Bears. Mulkey, a self-proclaimed realist, did point out she still sees areas of improvement for her team following the Arkansas game.
“I think there is still a lot more that we can improve on,” Mulkey said. “I just think we need to take [our defense] up another level. The part that is making us better right now is that we are communicating more. This has been a team that doesn’t talk a lot, but they are communicating.”
Nitpicking aside, Baylor started the tournament just as well as it could have hoped. Mulkey’s roster is well-rested, confident and excited to be in the tournament. A run to the quarterfinals was certainly feasible but definitely not expected of the Lady Bears at the onset of the season, not even from themselves. The Lady Bears, Mulkey included, have come a long way since their start to the season.
What looked like a team that was a hopeful Big 12 title contender is now two games away from the Final Four. Two games in which the opponents are very much within reach. The Lady Bears are in the thick of it all again.
“When you hold a team to around 20 percent in the second half, you’re playing good defense,” Mulkey said. “Is it good enough to win another championship? I don’t know, but I know we are on the right track. It may not happen until next year, or the year after that. But it is going to happen for them because I do see progress.”
Mulkey is already licking her chops for the next few years and this one isn’t even over yet. The Lady Bears face the University of Iowa from the Big Ten conference. The three-seed Hawkeyes beat Washington and Miami on their road to the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City, Okla., on Friday.