By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer
Now that Baylor women’s basketball has put a bow on the regular season, the eyes of the Lady Bears turn towards the Big 12 tournament. Baylor is no stranger to success in the conference tournament, having won eight of the last nine championships, and 10 total, the most of any Big 12 team. In such a strange year as this, head coach Kim Mulkey knows nothing is as expected.
“It’s going to be new and interesting to see how this all works in the hotel,” Mulkey said. “Testing, how are they going to have us in a bubble? How are they going to keep us away from the public in the hotel? That will be new to us.”
Earlier in the year, Mulkey and other coaches had expressed some concern over the playing of the Big 12 tournament, feeling that it might be unnecessary or put more people at risk of contracting COVID-19. Despite any concerns, the Lady Bears are still showing up, ready to compete for a championship.
“Oh baby, we’re playing to win,” Mulkey said. “We’re not getting on that plane negative. We’re not getting on that plane for any other reason than we’re going to lace them up, and we’re going to play. We won this thing how many times? I don’t know, go figure it out. I forget. No, we’re playing to win a tourney championship.”
Even with the COVID-19 concerns this year keeping the team from gathering and practicing as they normally would, the girls were still able to grow closer and develop the strong bonds needed for a team with championship aspirations.
“We love each other,” said senior guard DiDi Richards. “So we all kind of gravitate towards each other. We’ll sit around the gym, we go eat, all within our rules and regulations of course. It didn’t make anything harder because our personalities are so out there as a team. If we were quiet, it probably would’ve taken a toll on us, but because we’re so loud and lively and love to have fun it didn’t really ruin anything.”
During the regular season, Baylor posted a strong 22-2 record, with a 17-1 record during conference play. That performance has earned them the No. 6 spot in national rankings, as well as the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 tournament. On average, the Lady Bears beat their opponents by 27.1 points per game this year, keeping a lot of games anything but close. Tournament season will change some things, but Baylor is staying focused.
“It’ll be business as usual,” Mulkey said. “Now, what happens with the conference tournament is that you don’t have that day in between games to where you can go into detail on the practice floor, but we’ve played [every Big 12 team] twice, so what little film you get and the small amount of time you do get on the floor the day of the game you just go over things quickly.”
In the Lady Bears’ final regular season game, Richards moved into the bronze medal spot in all-time assists at Baylor. Richards, still somewhat new to being the primary ball-handler, came back from a serious back injury early in the season. For Richards to achieve what she has this season is a testament to both her basketball ability and her perseverance.
“It’s impressive that Odyssey Sims and Niah Johnson, that was our primary ball-handlers for their entire careers at Baylor,” Mulkey said. “DiDi has not been. She gets thrown into the fire at the point guard position this year, basically because we had to let some others grow up. For her to be third all-time, there’s just one word that can describe it: impressive.”
The rest of the roster is accomplished as well. Junior forward NaLyssa Smith was named the Big 12 Player of the Year, and guard DiJonai Carrington was tabbed as the Big 12 Sixth Person of the Year and Newcomer of the Year. Smith was named to the all-conference first team, and Richards and guard Moon Ursin were honored with second team selections.
The Lady Bears will begin their hunt for a Big 12 tournament title on Friday as they take on TCU in Kansas City. The game will air on ESPNU at 1:30 p.m.