By Nathan Keil | Sports Writer
The NCAA Tournament is heading back to Waco as the Baylor Lady Bears earned the No. 1 seed in the Oklahoma City regional and will host the first two rounds of the tournament at the Ferrell Center.
The Lady Bears finished the regular season 30-3 overall and 17-1 in Big 12 play on their way to a Big 12 regular-season championship. Baylor then finished second in the Big 12 conference tournament after falling 77-66 to West Virginia on March 6 in the final. However, the loss did not affect its seeding.
For redshirt senior guard Alexis Prince, the tournament marks an opportunity to get back to winning and put the distractions aside.
“I’m really excited. I’m ready to get going,” Prince said. “Waiting a whole week to find out who we play-I think everyone is focused and ready to play this first game.”
Baylor’s opponent in the Waco regional will be the No. 16-seed Texas Southern Lady Tigers at 5:30 p.m Saturday. The winner will meet the victor of the No.8/9 game between LSU and University of California-Berkeley.
Baylor will be the heavy favorite to win this weekend, but senior forward Nina Davis knows no one can be overlooked as the stakes are now at an all-time high.
“It’s an exciting time of year. It’s March Madness,” Davis said. “Everyone elevates their play. It’s lose or go home. There is no second chance, there is no tomorrow, so it’s definitely always exciting.”
Getting to host the first two rounds doesn’t come without a price as Baylor’s regional is loaded from top to bottom, head coach Kim Mulkey. The region even consists of a few familiar foes from earlier in the season.
“We’ve seen Tennessee, OU and DePaul. So we’ve seen some of them,” Mulkey said. “This is a very challenging region. You’ve got some great teams; you’ve got some great coaches. If you go to fill out your bracket in this region, chances are you might get a lot of them wrong because this is a really good region.”
Joining Baylor on the top half of the bracket in the Louisville, Kentucky regional are No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Dayton and No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
The bottom half of the Oklahoma City regional consists of No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Gonzaga, No. 3 Washington vs. No. 14 Montana State, No. 7 DePaul vs. No. 10 Northern Iowa and No. 2 Mississippi State and No. 15 Troy.
One of the key questions facing Baylor heading into the tournament has been the health of redshirt senior guard Alexis Jones, who missed the Big 12 tournament due to a knee injury. Jones averaged 13.9 points per game and 42 percent from 3-point range on the season.
According to her head coach, Jones will be just fine.
“She practiced full speed today, so she’s good to go,” Mulkey said. “She’s one of the top players in the country. We’ve only lost one game without her. I think we’re pretty good with or without her, but when you have all your parts, it should just go a little better. She’s out there going full speed today.”
Davis, Jones and Prince are all entering their final NCAA tournament and facing decisions beyond Division I college basketball. With their careers coming to a close over the next few weeks, regardless of results, Davis insisted the focus is on the team and on doing whatever it takes to keep advancing.
“You don’t think about that,” Davis said. “Of course I know this is my last go round-I’m a senior. The obvious things-but I’m not really focused on that, just taking it game by game and being here for my team. Trying to give a freshman a better freshman year by trying to get them to the Final Four and don’t really try to focus on outside things.”
Baylor has had its season ended the last three years in the Elite Eight. The road to Dallas is not an easy one, but Mulkey believes this team is right there and needs to find a way to make one more play than it has the previous three seasons.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Mulkey said. “Make one more bucket than you did last year. We’re right there. There are no secrets to what we do-one more defensive play, get one more rebound, make one more bucket. We just haven’t made what we need to do it.”
No. 1 Baylor will begin its march toward that coveted Final Four when it meets No. 16 Texas Southern at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ferrell Center. The game will air on ESPN2.