Baylor HC Nicki Collen sounds off on Washington Post’s criticism of Bears program

Baylor head coach Nicki Collen has compiled a 74-28 record through three seasons at the helm. Michael Haag | Sports Editor

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

PORTLAND, Ore. — Baylor head coach Nicki Collen set the record straight after her fifth-seeded Bears came up just short of an upset bid against No. 1 seed USC.

“Nothing is withering in Waco,” Collen said.

Baylor fell 74-70 on Saturday night in the Moda Center, but the close loss showed Collen and her team that this program is in good shape moving forward.

Collen’s comment was in response to a notion that the Bears’ program was on a downward trend, according to The Washington Post’s highly anticipated article about former Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, which was published on Saturday morning.

“Baylor is no longer among the sport’s upper tier, another structure abandoned and left to wither,” sports features writer Kent Babb’s wrote in the article.

Collen made it clear in her postgame press conference that Baylor (26-8) is just fine.

“I’m not afraid to say I was really, really offended by the article that came out,” Collen said. “And I didn’t read any of it. … Don’t know what happened. Didn’t read the article. But nothing is withering in Waco. … And we’re going to do it our way. And it’s going to be just as good.”

Mulkey spent 21 seasons at Baylor, a program she turned around in a big way. Mulkey inherited a team that had won just seven games the year before her arrival in 2000, and the Bears had 13 losing seasons in the previous 17.

She went on to make Baylor the third program in NCAA history to have at least three national championships, and she coached 19 different All-Americans.

But Mulkey took the LSU head coaching job ahead of the 2021-22 season, and Collen filled that void at Baylor. Collen led the Bears to their 12th straight regular season Big 12 championship in her first year, as well as a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

Her first two years ended in second round exits, but Baylor reached the Sweet 16 this season and has the potential to return 11 athletes for 2024-25.

“You can’t get to the Sweet 16 and take a number one seed down to the wire in a one-possession game and say anything’s withering in Waco,” Collen said.

The Bears had the top-seeded Trojans (29-5) on the ropes, as they outscored USC 26-16 in the third quarter to take a four-point lead into the fourth. They also had multiple chances to tie the game late, but they came up short.

The tight contest showed sophomore forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs that Baylor will be back and better next year. Littlepage-Buggs said the Bears are ready to keep embracing that underdog role.

“I’m ready to break a lot more [notions of] ‘Well, they can’t get here, they won’t be here,'” Littlepage-Buggs said. “I’m ready for that next year and I’m pretty sure my team is right behind me.”

Graduate student forward Dre’Una Edwards added that Baylor’s performance on Saturday showed that “Baylor basketball is not done.” Edwards played her final college basketball game on Saturday, as she’s exhausted all of her eligibility.

“They have a lot of people coming back,” Edwards said. “And I just know that they’re going to do some big things in the next couple of years. … I know that they’re coming back and next year they’re getting to that Final Four.”

Junior guard Jada Walker is one of 11 potential returners who can come back for Baylor next season. Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Junior guard Jada Walker is one of 11 potential returners who can come back for Baylor next season. Michael Haag | Sports Editor

Collen said it’s hard for her to look ahead to next year since she always stays so locked into what’s directly in front of her.

“I think that the end of seasons are about honoring seniors and not spending a lot of time talking about next year,” Collen said. “I really do because I think that was three players’ [Edwards, graduate student forward Aijha Blackwell and senior guard Catarina Ferreira] potentially last game, and that’s who this is about.”

But Collen did finish her presser by saying Babb and the Washington Post can rewrite their wrongs when the time presents itself next season.

“But I’m excited to have this backcourt back,” Collen said. “And there’s a lot blooming —I’m going to say not withering. There’s some stuff blooming in Waco. So if [Babb] wants to come to Waco and write an article about it next year, he’s welcome.”

Edwards and Blackwell are the only Bears who can’t return for the 2024-25 season, as Ferreira has a COVID-19 year if she wanted to use it. Seven of the 11 potential returners were rotational players, and Baylor will also welcome 6-foot-1 freshman forward Kayla Nelms, a top-50 four-star commit in the 2024 class, according to espnW.

Senior guard Sarah Andrews said the Bears will be back in 2024-25 with a vengeance.

“I think people are going to be scared for next season,” Andrews said. “I think everybody’s going to be looking to see how Baylor grows. We put everybody on alert [against USC].

“That was a great moment for us. I think a lot of people grew in this game. We grew, but most of all we put a lot of people on alert for next year.”

Baylor's trip to the Sweet 16 marked the 13th in the last 15 seasons and 16th in program history. Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Baylor's trip to the Sweet 16 marked the 13th in the last 15 seasons and 16th in program history. Michael Haag | Sports Editor