By Jeffrey Swindoll
The Lady Bears crashed out of the NCAA tournament for the second-straight year in the Elite Eight, just one game short of the Final Four. Head coach Kim Mulkey did not think for a second to call the season a complete disappointment in the aftermath of her team’s loss in Oklahoma City. Quite the opposite, actually.
Senior post Sune Agbuke, with tears in her eyes after knowing she had just played her last game kept Baylor’s season in perspective during the press conference. It was almost as if Agbuke could see the promised land for her now-former teammates, but couldn’t quite get there herself.
“I’ve just learned so much about life from this team,” Agbuke said. “We weren’t always the biggest, we weren’t always the fastest, we weren’t the most talented, but we battled every day. We always could learn lessons. We lost two games in a row late in the season, but we were able to bounce back. That’s what we were all about. We just continued to get better all year from every loss and from every win.”
Agbuke previously won the Big Dance with Mulkey’s undefeated, national championship-winning Lady Bears in 2012. Agbuke knows what a championship team looks like, and she called it like she saw it that night.
After the tears and heartache from a crushing end to her career, Agbuke finished her final press conference with practical optimism about the team. The unexpected accomplishments of the Lady Bears in the 2014-15 season heavily outweigh the disappointing Elite Eight exit.
“I’m excited for them because next year they’ll make it better, and the year after that they’ll only get better. That’s just Baylor for you,” Agbuke said. “That’s just the kind of program that Coach Mulkey has built here, that this year we made it to an Elite Eight and we’re disappointed because we couldn’t make it further, but next year, man, they’re going to be so great.”
Above all the success for Baylor, the unprecedented effectiveness of Mulkey’s young squad is the biggest takeaway from this season. The roster featured just one senior, but many others stepped up. Many had never played significant minutes for Mulkey. Mulkey’s potential stars from last season, sophomore forward Nina Davis and junior guard Niya Johnson, became the All-American talents they were hyped to be.
“When you have depth, it makes kids work harder, because they know at any moment they can get in for one possession or 20 minutes,” Mulkey said. “We could actually start anyone who comes off the bench. I could go down the list. I like our depth, because I don’t feel like we drop off in any area. I really don’t.”
The season began with a gigantic question mark hovering above the Lady Bears’ starting five regarding who would carry the team the same way Odyssey Sims did last season.
Freshman guard Kristy Wallace, freshman post Dekeiya Cohen, sophomore guard Imani Wright and sophomore post Khadijiah Cave increased the depth of Mulkey’s roster two-fold. In addition to Baylor’s youth breaking out, sophomore guard Alexis Prince returned to the lineup after a foot injury kept her off the court all of last season.
“I think we took [the fact that the team was young] as a challenge,” Wallace said. “Being able to take the role of the underdog, we really like that. So I’m glad we were able to get there and show what we could do. I think we did a great job. We made it to the Elite Eight and no one ever thought we could. Give credit to our fans for always being there. They believed in us. We did a good job this season.”
The Lady Bears didn’t find a replacement for Sims. Instead, Mulkey transformed her team into something it had not been for a long time – young, balanced and ruthless. Mulkey said his year’s team was reminiscent of the Lady Bears’ 2005 national championship-winning team at various times throughout the season.
In many ways, it was supposed to be the year for rebuilding. But midway through conference play, the Lady Bears found themselves dominating the Big 12. They ended up running undefeated for all but two games in the end. The Lady Bears started looking ahead to next year, but took advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself.
It’s clear who controls this Lady Bears team now – every player on the roster. That was exemplified this season. From Johnson to Wallace to the incoming freshmen, the Lady Bears embraced the idea of finding success in collectively contributing and will carry on to do the same next season. Next season, they will already have found the identity they so desperately searched for at the beginning of this year.
Just one player (Agbuke) is departing. The rest of this Big 12 regular- and postseason title-winning, Elite Eight return. Rest assured, the Lady Bears will come back strong for 2015-16, Mulkey said.