By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor
Losing is never easy, especially when you’re accustomed to winning. Such is the case for No. 15 Baylor women’s basketball, which created an expectation of success under the reign of Kim Mulkey. Thirty-win seasons filled with blowouts and deep tournament runs became the norm for women’s basketball at Baylor and anything less was unfathomable. However, this season, after a rough month filled with adversity, Baylor sits at 12-4 with a 2-2 record in Big 12 matchups.
One of the challenges that made the past month difficult for head coach Nicki Collen and her squad was a COVID-19 outbreak at the start of the new year that caused them to have a complete shutdown of all activities for six days and postpone two games.
“Knowing that I live, dream, breathe basketball, those six days were very long for me honestly, but sometimes you do need time,” senior forward NaLyssa Smith said. “That time, I really did reflect on myself and reflect on how I wanted to help this team and what I wanted to change about myself internally. So I feel like those six days were negative and positive at the same time.”
Things didn’t get any easier once they returned to action either, as a top-25 conference matchup with the University of Oklahoma on Jan. 12 resulted in an 83-77 loss, putting the Bears at 10-4 and 0-2 to start Big 12 play.
To make matters even worse, fans who were skeptical of Collen and the team at the start of the season began to fully turn on them and let their opinions be known on social media. Collen hopes to gain the full support of the Baylor family at some point, saying, “The bus will always have room for fans.” In the meantime, she asks that everyone keep things in perspective.
“I would just ask people to think about the fact that these guys are 18 to 22 years old,” Collen said. “I signed up for this, I get paid well and so I can handle the criticism. … I’m always going to have their back, but I would ask fans to understand that these guys are 18-to-22-year-olds and love to play basketball. … I hurt more for them than I hurt for myself when I read negative comments.”
Transfer guard Ja’Mee Asberry, who left Oklahoma State University over the summer to accomplish great things in the green and gold, said she ignores the naysayers who say she should’ve stayed at OSU.
“I’m really good at blocking out the noise unless someone says it to my face, and no one’s ever done that, so I really don’t feel the pressure,” Asberry said. “I do want to be able to be in the history books like ‘Baylor this, Baylor that,’ on the more positive side, but the negative side I can easily cancel it out.”
However, blocking out the noise and pressure doesn’t mean the team is lacking accountability. Every player knows what part of the game they need to work on to be successful and are continually trying to improve.
“One of my weaknesses is my help defense. I’m good with my man, but I need to help my teammates more,” Asberry said. “I need to be in the gap more, have the V-back, which is helping the helper. So being a helper is my biggest weakness right now.”
While the Bears had plenty of excuses at their disposal, such as playing three straight weeks on the road, Collen took the situation as an opportunity to challenge her team to be better and she said they have responded.
“I asked each of them, I looked at them in the eye and said, ‘Are you ready to quit or are you ready to figure this out?’” Collen said. “Our practices have been great. Our energy has been great. Our positivity has been great. We’re really starting to get the culture component.”
That culture being built in practice and in the locker room is starting to translate on the court. Four days after their loss to OU, the Bears rallied to beat the University of Kansas 82-79 after being down four with 25 seconds to go, followed by a dominating performance against OSU on Wednesday night in which they won 67-49.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction, to be honest,” Collen said. “I’m not sure that results always show in the midst of that. I think it takes time to keep getting better, but these guys know they’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We have to go in and win games. People aren’t going to be afraid. They’re going to look at it as an opportunity and everyone’s going to play with a freeness that comes with being the underdog, and feeling like regardless of our record, it’s still toppling Baylor. Whether it’s in their home gym or here, we know we’ve got to take everybody’s best shot.”
At the same time that they’re taking everyone’s best shot, the Bears are still looking to put together their best game as a unit.
“I feel like if it’s not one person’s game, it’s another,” senior center Queen Egbo said. “Just because it’s not your game doesn’t mean you can’t help us and I feel like that’s what we’re doing: acknowledging when somebody else has the hot hand and feeding them and continue to go to them, while keeping your shot and playing aggressive. One day, we’re going to have a game where we all play great together and we’re just waiting for that.”
Collen figures that type of game where everyone is at their best will be common come tournament time.
“I know I’m not perfect, and I’m going to get situations wrong and plays wrong, but I just think this team is going to be better in March,” Collen said. “I’ve said that since September, that it’s going to take time for them to mesh. It’s going to take time. You’re not talking about freshmen that absolutely understand that they’re going to defer and play off someone. You’re talking about players who are used to being the best player on their team, and are certainly more than willing to sacrifice, but are trying to find out how to sacrifice but then how to lead at the same time.”