Young Lady Bears squad looks to go deep into postseason with help of veteran leaders

Baylor senior center Kalani Brown reaches for the rebound against Texas on Jan. 25 at the Ferrell Center. The Lady Bears were picked to finish first in the Big 12 this year after winning their eighth straight conference title last year. Baylor opens the season against Nicholls State at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Ferrell Center. Lariat File Photo

By Adam Gibson | Sports Writer

The Lady Bears come into the 2018-19 season ranked as the No. 4 team in the country in the preseason rankings for the fourth year in the row. Head coach Kim Mulkey is entering her 19th season as head coach for the Lady Bears and last year coached the team to win the Big 12 Championship and into March before the squad was eliminated in the Sweet 16.

This season the women’s basketball team has to adjust to a younger team and adjust to older impact players, like guard Kristy Wallace and forward Dekeiya Cohen, graduating to leave the team with only four upperclassmen out of the 12 players on the roster.

Mulkey said this season may be different because of the lineup it has but with the depth, all the coaching staff needs to do is give the team time to find its rhythm.

“Last year, when you have someone like Kristy Wallace coaching them on the floor, you can just kind of roll the ball out there because you taught her what to do,” Mulkey said. “Now we’ve got a young group and we’ve got to make sure that we’re patient with them. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t get frustrated with them because they are very talented. They have to play, and they have to contribute. Another good thing is the numbers. We have numbers this year with 12 players.”

Two of the older leaders on the team are junior forward Lauren Cox and senior center Kalani Brown. Last season, Cox started in all 34 games she played in and averaged 15.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 2.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. She led the Big 12 in blocked shots with 92 and came in at 14 in the country in the category. Coming into the new season, Cox comes in at sixth in Baylor’s all-time block leaders list and with her defensive ability overwhelming opponents, has become a leader for the team on the floor.

Brown, like Cox, started in all the games she played in and is toward the top of the list in Baylor women’s basketball records. She comes in with the best career field goal percentage in Lady Bear history with .649, fourth in blocked shots at 173, ninth in double-doubles with 30, 10th in field goals made and free throws made with 644 and 335, respectively and finally comes in at 11th on the all-time scoring list.

Needless to say Brown and Cox will be the players to watch who will lead the young team to its success. Brown was named a preseason first-team All-American by the Associated Press and Cox was placed on the Katrina McClain award watchlist for the best power forward in the nation. Mulkey said she relies on both of the upperclassmen to be coaches on the court and also perform up to the expectations set on them.

“Cox is your coach on the floor probably more than anybody,” Mulkey said. “She’s not afraid to open her mouth … Kalani needs to focus on ‘you know what, I’m motivated’ … If you’re going to be potentially a three-time all-American, you need to demand the ball every time down the floor and when you get it, you need to do something with it.”

The Lady Bears bring in a high-level recruiting class including five five-star recruits. The class is led by the No. 3 overall recruit in wing Acquira DeCosta and No. 7-ranked player in post Queen Egbo. Baylor also adds forward NaLyssa Smith, forward Caitlin Bickle and guard Honesty Scott-Grayson in addition to LSU graduate transfer guard Chloe Jackson.

The Lady Bears finished last season with an overall record of 33-2, 18-0 and did not give up a loss at home. Even with the phenomenal record, it’s still a new season and with it comes new challenges that forces new ways to prepare. At this point, a few days away from its season opener against Nicholls State on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Ferrell Center, Mulkey said the team is still trying to figure itself out and the players are still trying to prove themselves.

“[We need to figure out our] defense certainly,” Mulkey said. “Secondly, I’ve got to figure out who are my best offensive players … then a defensive stopper that may not be your best offensive player, but she’s got to be in the game. She makes things happen. Then just let those kids separate themselves. Let them separate themselves and I think we may not know in a month, but we could.”

After being eliminated by Oregon State 72-67 in the Sweet 16 last spring, Brown said with this season being her last, she wants to make it as deep into the season as they can and she has been so close in the past but wants to grab the championship this season.

“This is my last crack at it. I want to go as far as possible,” Brown said. “We’ve been knocking at the door pretty much my whole career. I’m ready to get over that hump.”

Baylor will face tough non-conference opponents in South Carolina, Stanford and UConn, who have combined for five of the last six national championships.

The Lady Bears open the season with back-to-back home games, starting with a matchup against Nicholls State at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Ferrell Center. Baylor will play twice next week, facing Saint Francis at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Ferrell Center.