Image: Rod Aydelotte/AP
The Baylor Bears haven’t won a ring, not yet at least. But they did add some hardware to the trophy case in last night’s 80-59 beat down of Texas in Waco. The Bears picked up their second-consecutive Big 12 regular season title in their (currently) undefeated season.
But head coach Kim Mulkey isn’t finished with her plan to hoist awards and cut down nets.
“It’s about the ring,” Mulkey said after beating the Oklahoma State Cowgirls on Feb. 15. “It’s not about individual honors. It’s not about how many points you score. We’re on a mission and we want to get to a Final Four and win a championship and as you saw tonight, we have many weapons.”
The weapons in Stillwater came in the form of Kimetria Hayden’s 20-point performance. And the rebounding combination of Destiny Williams and Jordan Madden, who pulled in 16 boards. Even Brooklyn Pope’s effective seven points and four rebounds in nine minutes on the court was a key contribution. That’s not even mentioning the skillful play of point guard Odyssey Sims.
And of course, there’s this woman you might have heard of before – Brittney Griner – who on that night posted a double-double of 28 points and 10 rebounds.
“She’s surrounded by All-Americans,” Mulkey said of her superstar center. “She’s not surrounded by kids that can’t play and that’s what makes it so good to coach. While Brittney gets all the attention – and she should – those other players are outstanding all-Americans.”
Cowgirls head man Jim Littell said as much too. Griner, the top candidate for 2012 NCAA Player of the Year and potential selection to the 2012 Olympic team, has nearly unlimited potential in improving not only her game, but everyone’s game.
“I don’t think there’s any limits on how good she is,” Littell said. “When you have somebody like that, she’s not only special but she makes everybody around her special. You know about point guards that do everything right and make other people around them better, she makes people around her better.”
One place on the court where everyone shines for the Bears is on defense. Baylor hasn’t allowed a team to get hot from the field and shoot over 50% in 203 games. The Bears have only allowed one team (which happens to be current #3 Notre Dame) to score over 80 points this season. In fact, Baylor has held an impressive 14 opponents to 50 points or less in their 27 games. Mulkey thinks Baylor’s defense has been a vital key to success.
“I’ve been around a lot of great teams, national championship teams, but this defense could really be the best I’ve ever been around,” Mulkey said. “It is so much fun to coach all-Americans who play the defensive end of the floor.”
Littell thinks a lot of that team defense comes from the size and skill of the nation’s top shot-blocker, Griner.
“They’re allowed to do some things defensively and really cheat and get on the high side and deny things because they know they’ve got the big one waiting back at the hole,” Littell said. “They’re hard to play because they do a lot of things that are unconventional and they’re allowed to do it because of Brittney.”
So the real question boils down to this – is the nation’s last unbeaten Division I team beatable this season?
“I haven’t seen UConn or Notre Dame that much but I think somebody is going to have to really be on their game,” Littell said of the team the Cowgirls lost to twice, by a combined score of 154-95. “I think Baylor is going to have to be a little off to beat them.”
Only #4 Connecticut and Texas Tech (in both meetings) have held the final margin of victory to single-digits. In the last meeting with the Red Raiders, Tech had one of their better halves since the beginning of conference play. They put in 50% of their attempts from the field to own a 5-point halftime lead. But the Red Raiders couldn’t capitalize in the last 20 minutes of the night. Conversely, the Bears had their worst shooting effort of the season, with a field goal percentage of 35.1 for the game.
The last team to beat Baylor was Texas A&M, one of three remaining opponents for the Bears in the regular season. In their Elite Eight meeting, the eventual national champs avenged three previous losses in 2011 and dropped Baylor, 58-46. Baylor shot just 31.3% and couldn’t find many scoring opportunities past Griner’s 20 points on a dismal 6-of-18 shooting from the field and 8-of-15 night from the line. Just like Littell said, Baylor had to have an off game to be beat – even last season.
But really, maybe the scary question for the rest of the country is this – is Baylor going to beatable next season?
A junior-laden roster with Griner, Hayden, Madden, Pope and Williams is coupled with sophomore sensation Sims, and the Bears are set to be stacked. They might even have an Olympian in the center after the London Games. Baylor was selected as one of 16 sites to host the first- and second-rounds of the 2013 NCAA Championship. Oklahoma City, a mere 4-hour drive away, is a regional host for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
And Kim might be looking to load up her jewelry box – potentially with back-to-back championship rings.