No. 5 seed Baylor women’s basketball embraces growth in Nicki Collen’s 1st Sweet 16

No. 5 seed Baylor women's basketball is playing in its 20th-straight NCAA Tournament, the fourth-longest active streak in the nation behind Tennessee (42), Stanford (36) and UConn (35). Michael Haag | Sports Editor

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Following the second-best start to a season in program history (14-0 start through Jan. 6), No. 5 seed Baylor women’s basketball hit turbulence.. Through a cold streak in which they lost six of their next 10 games, the team stayed positive and rallied back to find itself in the Sweet 16 for the first time under head coach Nicki Collen. Now, the Bears will clash with No. 1 seed USC at 4:30 p.m. CT on Saturday at the Moda Center.

Rattling off two-straight postseason victories, Baylor (26-7) finds itself in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2021. Peaking as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll, Baylor was one of seven programs to knock off seven or more AP top-25 teams and will have another opportunity this weekend.

“My expectations aren’t really driven necessarily by what people think they should be,” Collen said. “It’s more about wanting to be considered one of the best at what I do and how we do it. Certainly we felt like we had the pieces to be here when the season started. It’s about, for us, meeting those expectations.”

While Collen will get her first crack at the Sweet 16, so will all but two Bears. Senior guards Sarah Andrews and Jana Van Gytenbeek each have brief Sweet 16 experience but will serve as those veterans who have been there before.

Andrews is the only Bear still on the team that was part of a Sweet 16 game with the program. With her veteran experience and struggles of her own, the Irving native emphasized how both she and the team have grown.

“I’m starting to see that team that came out and went 14-0 [to start the season],” Andrews said. “We could have folded, been done early in the first game after the tournament, could have folded in the first game coming into March Madness. We came in with a different type of firepower, different look in our eyes.”

Baylor is set for a grueling task with the Trojans (28-5) next up on the docket. The two teams will meet for the first time since Dec. 20, 2000, when the Bears won 79-55 in Waco. Led by freshman guard JuJu Watkins, USC finds itself in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994. Watkins leads the team and is second in the nation with 26.9 points per game, and she bolsters 3-point shooting that has the Trojans 24th in the nation with a 36% 3-point field goal percentage.

“She’s really, really talented,” Collen said. “I think when JuJu’s in transition, that’s the most challenging space. When she has space to operate, she’s such a rhythm player. If you look analytically, [she] plays in the highest volume of isolations of anybody in the country and does it pretty successfully.”

While USC thrives from deep behind Watkins, the Bears have held their opponents to below 20% shooting from 3-point range in five of their last eight games and sit ninth nationally in 3-point defense, holding opponents to 26.2% from beyond the arc.

“We have to stop JuJu, but we have to stop everybody else on the team, as well,” Sophomore forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs said. “We just have to play hard all night. She’s going to make some tough shots. We just have to live with those shots and keep on playing.”

Unlike the Trojans, Baylor’s offense presents a different challenge as five players average more than eight points per game. The Bears have had a different leading scorer in each of the last six games, with junior guard Jada Walker coming off a career-high 28 points to push the Bears past Virginia Tech in the round of 32.

“I think it’s hard to scheme for us because we have so many people that can score,” Andrews said. “Whoever’s our top leading scorer doesn’t have to have a great night every night because we have so many people that can go anywhere else and be a top scorer. That’s the beauty about this team.”

With the multitude of options and lots of players that are capable of coming off the bench, Collen’s go-to strategy is to push the pace and play up-tempo.

“One of the things that I learned a little bit about this team kind of in the midst of our losing streak is that we’re not a great execution team when I have to slow them down,” Collen said. “We’re better playing in action, early action, playing off the second action. If our drags and step-ups are good, it doesn’t matter after that. We’re going to get an advantage off a drift pass, someone trailing the play.”

Baylor’s brawl for a spot in the Elite Eight is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. CT on Saturday at Moda Center. The contest will be broadcast on ESPN.