Sophomore duo gives Bears seasoned underclassmen

Sophomore forward Bella Fontleroy plays defense against Texas on Feb. 1 in the Foster Pavilion. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

By Zach Babajanof-Rustrian | Sports Writer

Sophomore forwards Darianna Littlepage-Buggs and Bella Fontleroy play like upperclassmen despite being less than two full years into their collegiate career.

The duo was thrown into the fire as freshmen, as they played pivotal roles for a team seeking its 13th-straight Big 12 regular season title. They didn’t expect to have to play so much as underclassmen, but Fontleroy said the 2022-23 season accelerated their progression.

“Some people don’t get that experience until their sophomore year — even junior year — just because they have so many talented people ahead of them,” Fontleroy said. “We were very fortunate last year. … We took that opportunity and definitely took advantage of it and ran with it.

While being thrown off the deep end as first-year athletes, both Bears were named to the Big 12 All-Freshman team as the only two unanimous selections. Littlepage-Buggs also earned the Big 12 Freshman of the Year honor.

Fontleroy said she and Littlepage-Buggs expected the postseason praise since they had a presence on the court and weren’t “just out there floating around.”

“We made a huge impact with our minutes, but I definitely expected that, just because of the preparation that we put in,” Fontleroy said. “Like, that was one of the hardest summers of work that I’ve done, and it just all paid off really well.”

Sophomore forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs grabs a rebound versus UCF on Jan. 20. at the Foster Pavilion. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor
Sophomore forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs grabs a rebound versus UCF on Jan. 20. at the Foster Pavilion. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

That freshman season carried over into this year, as Littlepage-Buggs snagged her 500th career rebound in Baylor’s 74-53 win at Cincinnati on Feb. 27. She said it’s important to play somewhere that’s “legendary” and she loves being part of Baylor’s culture.

“I think that coming in under Coach Nicki [Collen] and her being fairly new — and then obviously adding new players — it’s been something special,” Littlepage-Buggs said. “Like, we’re a really good team, and for us to be coming into [what] we have done so far, it’s just amazing.”

Littlepage-Buggs helped the Bears finish the regular season 23-6 overall, which marked Baylor’s 24th-straight 20-plus win season. That’s the second-longest streak in the nation, behind UConn (31).

The Bears also opened the year 14-0 — the second-best start to a season in school history, behind the 40-0 national championship campaign in 2012.

While Littlepage-Buggs pulled down boards, Fontleroy has scored in double figures in 16 of 31 contests so far this season. The Springfield, Mo., native said putting the ball in the basket is her niche.

“There’s times in a player’s career where you’re like, ‘OK, I want to score. I want to do this to contribute,’ but I feel like I really found my confidence in scoring,” Fontleroy said.

Make no mistake, though — Fontleroy said she can do more than just score.

“From my confidence in my defense, like that is one of the reasons that I know I’m on the court a lot, because I play defense whenever we’re out there,” Fontleroy said. “Taking charges, getting those moments in place, that’s what gets me momentum to get it done on both ends of the court.”

Littlepage-Buggs and Fontleroy have grown so quickly that even senior guard Sarah Andrews — the only Bear with two or more years of experience at Baylor — has to remind herself that they aren’t upperclassmen.

“At the beginning [of their career], I was like, ‘They were freshmen,'” Andrews said. “But shoot, by the third [or] fourth game in the season, they were playing like sophomores and juniors that have been here before.

“I think they amaze me every day, like they’ve grown tremendously. They don’t play like the age they are. They play like they’ve been in college for four years, and I’ve just been super proud to play with them.”

While Littlepage-Buggs and Fontleroy shouldered most of the forward minutes as freshmen, they received reinforcements for the 2023-24 season. Graduate student forwards Dre’Una Edwards (eligibility) and Aijha Blackwell (lower body injury) missed most, if not all, of the 2022-23 year, but now they’re on the court for the Bears.

Littlepage-Buggs said she and Fontleroy have learned a lot from the upperclassmen.

“Last year, it was hard being a freshman and playing and starting and being in tough positions,” Littlepage-Buggs said. “So I know a lot of that was Dre and Aijha. They were on the bench last year. They were out, but they helped me a lot. It gave me a lot of knowledge.”

Even when times were tough for the duo as first-year athletes, being part of the same class made things much easier.

“Whenever I tell you we spent all of our time together every day, like we would be up [in our apartment and] she’d come to our apartment and we’d [stay] up until like 2 a.m. just laughing, joking and listening to music, doing schoolwork,” Fontleroy said. “So there’s that bond outside of basketball too. That’s going to last a lifetime too. So that definitely translates over to the court.”

The Bears (24-7) are coming off a 67-62 loss to Iowa State in the quarterfinals of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship on March 9 in Kansas City, Mo. They enter the round of 64 as a No. 5 seed in the Portland 3 Regional and will open their tournament in Blacksburg, Va., taking on either No. 12 seed Columbia or No. 12 seed Vanderbilt at 5 p.m. Friday.

Fontleroy said team morale is “definitely high” despite the conference tournament loss, and the squad feels it can hit its stride in the NCAA Tournament.

“If people aren’t excited to watch us play again, then I don’t know what’s up,” Fontleroy said. “We’ve been playing really good post defense. We’ve been defending well at every position on the floor. And then also offensively, getting the looks we want — [we] just need our shots to fall, which I’m sure they will if we’re not playing back-to-back-to-back-to-back.”