Lady Bears look to bring heat to Waco Regional

Lady Bears celebrate after winning the championship game of the women’s Big 12 conference tournament on March 5 against Texas in Oklahoma City. Associated Press.

By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor

When No. 2 Baylor meets No. 15 Grambling State at 6:30 p.m. tonight, it will bring a close to a 12-day layoff since the last time the Lady Bears took to the court.

Head coach Kim Mulkey said rest has been beneficial for the Lady Bears because the Big 12 Tournament pushed them to their physical limits.

“It’s beneficial to all teams, but especially when you’re limited in numbers like we are,” Mulkey said. “Having only eight players that can play, these two big girls [junior center Kalani Brown and sophomore post Lauren Cox] playing 40 minutes three straight days, that’s asking a lot of their bodies. But they gutted it out and we don’t have to do that anymore, thank goodness.”

The Lady Bears enter 31-1 and, with a win, will get two more games in the Ferrell Center, where they are 16-0 on the season.

Senior Dekeiya Cohen said she is excited to play at home, and that playing in front of a home crowd is a big boost for the Lady Bears.

“It’s a lot of comfort knowing we’re home, and our fans are here,” Cohen said. “We don’t have to travel, go through our normal routine of a home game. It makes it easier for us.”

The Tigers come to Waco 19-15 overall and winners of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, but are just 6-10 away from home on the season.

Despite the comforts of playing at home and Grambling State’s struggles away from home, Brown said the Lady Bears won’t take any opponent lightly.

“Upsets happen all the time because teams take 15 seeds, lower seeds for granted,” Brown said. “I feel like you have to play up to your potential every time or you’ll get beat. We’re one and done, so you can’t play games with everyone.”

If the Lady Bears are to advance to take on the winner of No. 7 Michigan and No. 19 Northern Colorado on Sunday, they will have to pay close attention to the Lady Tigers’ guard play. The heart of the defense’s focus will be on leading scorer, junior guard Shakyla Hill. Hill scores 17.3 points per contest while shooting 47 percent from the floor and rarely comes off the floor, averaging 36 minutes a game.

Hill has a versatile skillset with quickness and shot-creating capability, but Cohen said the Lady Bears see these skillsets on a regular basis in the Big 12.

“She’s a quick guard, scores a lot of points for them,” Cohen said. “We see a lot of guards like that in the Big 12 like [Texas senior Brooke] McCarty, we can make the adjustments to guard her. “

Junior guard Jazmin Boyd, sophomore guard Deja McKinney and senior guard Monisha Neal also average double-figures scoring. Boyd and McKinney each contribute 12 points per game and Neal averages 10.

Baylor has been extremely good on the defensive end of the floor this season. The Lady Bears limit their opponents to just 32 percent from the field and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

Mulkey said she remains confident in her team’s ability to defend at a high level, especially in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re a pretty good team and we’ve defended a lot of great guards. A lot of teams want to bring the big girls outside to defend. Lauren Cox isn’t afraid to go out there and defend a perimeter player. Kalani Brown doesn’t want to do it, but she’s been made to do it a lot,” Mulkey said. “We’ll defend the three. If you look at the NCAA stats, our filed goal percentage defense is ranked up there pretty high and we defend the three-point shot pretty well.”

Baylor will have a distinct advantage in the post, as the Lady Tigers have only two players that stand taller than 6-foot, in junior forward Kailyn Gideon and freshman center Alicia Machado. That combination as well as smaller post players will try to deal with six-feet-seven-inch Brown and six-feet-four-inch Cox, who have been dominant all season long. Brown averages 20.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and has appeared on all of the National Player of the Year lists. Cox scores 14.7 points and grabs nine rebounds per game and was the conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Cohen also contributes nearly 13 points a game and the Lady Bears will rely on freshman guard Alexis Morris, who has taken over the point guard duties after senior Kristy Wallace tore her ACL on Senior Night against the Mountaineers.

Cox said it’s not about inexperience or being a freshman or a senior, it’s about staying focused on the task at hand.

“Stay focused, don’t let the hype of March Madness get to your head,” Cox said. “We’re one and done now so we have stay really focused and take it one game at a time.”

Michigan and Northern Colorado will tip off the Waco regional at 4 p.m. with Baylor and Grambling State to follow at 6:30 p.m. The winners will advance to Sunday’s second round.