Story by Nathan Keil | Sports Editor, Video by Elisabeth Tharp | Broadcast Reporter
Monday evening in the Ferrell Center’s Stone Room was all business for Baylor women’s basketball. The Lady Bears gathered with friends, family and the Baylor community to find out where their road toward the Final Four begins.
Baylor, which posted a 31-1 record, claimed both the Big 12 regular season and conference tournament championship and was looking to nab a top seed for the third straight season.
The Lady Bears were rewarded the No. 2 seed in the Lexington, Ky., region. Connecticut claimed the No. 1 seed in Albany, N.Y., while Louisville gpt Lexington, Ky., Notre Dame got Spokane, Wash., and Mississippi State got Kansas City, Mo.
The Lady Bears will take on No. 15 Grambling State (18-15), winner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament.
Despite missing out on a top seed in the tournament, for Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey and the Lady Bears, it doesn’t take away from the excitement in the journey that begins this week.
“You’re just excited. You’re happy for Baylor University. Baylor’s name is out there in a positive light again from the women’s basketball program. You’re always excited to play at home,” Mulkey said. “We won a national championship as a No. 2 seed. We’ve won it as a No. 1 seed, and really, what does it matter? The No. 1 has to play the No. 2. Mississippi State was a No. 2 last year, and they played for a national championship. We were a No. 2 seed in 2005 and we played and won the national championship. You want to be one of the top seeds so that your fans can stay home the first two rounds and see an NCAA tournament on your home floor. That’s what’s most important.”
With senior guard Kristy Wallace’s absence in the lineup due to an injury, freshman guard Alexis Morris will continue to play a key role for Mulkey’s team, something she has proven that she is more of capable of doing, having scored a career-high 19 points and committing just one turnover in a 77-69 win over Texas in the Big 12 Tournament championship.
“I’m not surprised Alexis does that. Alexis does that every day in practice,” Mulkey said. “The mistakes she makes in games are typical freshman mistakes that you may not see, but I have to work extremely hard myself as a coach to stay focused, because I took for granted that Kristy would do it for me. And now I’ve got to help her, if it’s a quick inbounds, change of plays, if it’s a different play in the middle of the game. Those types of things, she’s going to make me stay on my toes more.”
After locking up the No. 2 seed, Baylor will host the first two rounds of the tournament. Alongside Grambling State, No. 7 Michigan and No. 10 Northern Colorado will be welcomed to the Waco regional.
For senior Dekeiya Cohen, getting the chance to play up to two more games at the Ferrell Center is a great honor and something she and her teammates are looking forward to.
“It’s definitely exciting. It’s good to play at home, at the beginning of the tournament, and having our fans there will mean a lot to us,” Cohen said. “Having home court advantage and the atmosphere, we’re definitely looking forward to it. Hopefully we’ll give y’all a show.”
The first opponent for the Lady Bears is the Grambling State Tigers. The two schools are very familiar, having played just two years ago, a 96-42 win for Baylor at the Ferrell Center. For Louisiana natives Mulkey and junior center Kalani Brown, the ties run much deeper than that.
“It does [mean a little extra]. I have a few friends, AAU teammates, that play for Grambling, so I’ll get to see them. We’re still going to be cool after it,” Brown said.
Mulkey added that she might be more familiar with Grambling than she is with Waco.
“I think I’ve been to Grambling probably more than Waco,” Mulkey said. “Shakyla Hill, you guys probably read about her, the quadruple-double. She was MVP in their conference championship game. They beat Southern, and in our state of Louisiana, Grambling vs. Southern is a big deal. Southern won the league. Grambling won the tournament.”
Elsewhere in the Lexington Regional, No. 1 Louisville will meet No. 16 Boise State, No. 8 Marquette will battle No. 9 Dayton, No. 5 Missouri will take on No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast and No. 4 Stanford will meet No. 13 Gonzaga. On Baylor’s section of the bracket, No. 6 Oregon State takes on No. 11 Western Kentucky, No. 3 Tennessee meets No. 14 Liberty and in Waco, No. 7 Michigan faces No. 10 Northern Colorado.
After seeing their season come to an end in the Elite Eight three straight years, Cohen said the team is ready to finally overcome this final obstacle.
“I’m very motivated. I think I’m as motivated as I possibly can be really, because right now, it’s now or never for us,” Cohen said. “Especially for me, and now that’s Kristy’s out, it would be a nice gift for her, for us to make it to the Final Four, for her to be able to come back and watch us play. And ever since I’ve been here, the Elite Eight has been a hurdle, and this year I think we can cross that obstacle.”
No. 7 Michigan will meet No. 10 Northern Colorado at 4 p.m. Friday with No. 2 Baylor and No. 15 Grambling State tipping off at 6:30 p.m at the Ferrell Center. Both games will air on ESPN2.