By Jeffrey Swindoll
After breezing past the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Baylor women’s basketball heads to Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. The last time Baylor played on this stage at this venue, disaster struck. This regional tournament is a shot at redemption.
In 2013, Chesapeake was the location of one of the biggest upsets in Baylor history. A year removed from a perfect 40-0 season and with All-Americans Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims on the court, Baylor played to the wire against five-seed Louisville.
Throughout the second half, head coach Kim Mulkey was on the sideline in the midst her team facing a massive deficit as the end of regulation loomed. The Lady Bears overcame a double-digit margin, eventually taking one-point lead after an Odyssey Sims free throw with less than 10 seconds left in the game.
With less three seconds left, the Cardinals hit go-ahead free throws to win 82-81 and advance to the Elite Eight. When the final buzzer sounded, tears streamed and bodies fell to the floor in exhausting disbelief.
The Griner era ended that day.
A year later, Mulkey and the Lady Bears arrived, once again, in Oklahoma City, this time for the Big 12 tournament. Baylor fans were as well represented as any school at the tournament. There was no controversy or agony this time – the Lady Bears clinched their fourth-straight Big 12 tournament title on the Chesapeake floor.
Heading back to the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City, more spectators seem to remember Baylor’s last OKC tourney appearance than the championship that occurred on the same floor.
Though it was just two years ago, the Lady Bears of 2015 seem to have very few, if any, sour feelings about Oklahoma City.
“The headlines of that day’s paper in Waco [following the Louisville game], what was it? ‘Brickyard Blues’? Really? These kids don’t know about that,” Mulkey said.
Just a few upperclassmen were on that team that faced Louisville, and none of them played significant minutes. Mulkey and a couple of assistant coaches are the only individuals who played a major role in the game on this Lady Bears squad.
All this to say that, what happened two years ago has little, if anything at all, to do with this year’s Lady Bears. However, there is still some sense of revenge to be had against a team rather than an arena.
The Lady Bears have shattered expectations already with a sweep of the Big 12 titles this season. A Final Four appearance is just two games away, and those two games will be played in a very familiar venue and could end up being against a familiar foe.
Last year, after muting the OKC Blues with a Big 12 tournament title in 2014, the Lady Bears fell in the Elite Eight to Notre Dame on their home court in South Bend, Ind. Baylor was only one win shy of the Final Four.
This year, only one team is seeded higher than the Lady Bears in the Oklahoma City region – Notre Dame. Baylor and the Fighting Irish appear to be on a crash course for a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight game. This time, the site will be neutral.
“I’ve got good players, good coaches, good tradition…we expect to be [in the Sweet 16] every year and go further,” Mulkey said. “I’m glad it’s in Oklahoma City and people can get there and see us.”
Mulkey said she expects Baylor fans to be the biggest fan base present at the regional tournament, considering the closeness of the city to Waco compared to the other schools. Not only could Baylor redeem their last NCAA performance in Oklahoma City, they could do so against the team that knocked them out of the whole thing last year at the exact same point in the tournament.
“We just have to take it one game at a time,” sophomore forward Nina Davis said. “Of course we want another shot at Notre Dame, but if we don’t win against Iowa we’ll never get to see Notre Dame. They made it to the Sweet 16 just like we did.”
While the public is focused on storylines about the venue or opponents, neither makes winning any more or less important to Mulkey and her Lady Bears. At the end of the day, the team is simply hungry to succeed, Mulkey said.
“If what you did in the past still looks big to you today, then you haven’t done much today. When I’m in the rocking chair rocking those grandbabies, I’ll look back on it. You just go to work. This is what we do. This is our life. You just go to the next opponent and get ready to go.”
Baylor women’s basketball win open the regional round with a Sweet 16 matchup against three-seed Iowa at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City. If the Lady Bears win, they will play the winner of Stanford and Notre Dame on Sunday night.