Baylor survives test, wins first title of season
WACO, Texas -- This night ended like most in attendance figured it would: with the mike in Baylor coach Kim Mulkey's hands, her voice echoing throughout the Ferrell Center, her team dancing and celebrating winning at least a share of the Big 12 championship.
"Make no mistake," Mulkey shouted over the loudspeaker minutes after Baylor's 56-51 win over Texas Tech, "championships are hard to come by."
Listening to Mulkey, it wasn't difficult to read between the lines. Big 12 championships are nice, and don't come easily, but she's preparing her team to win a national championship. That was made clear by Mulkey herself in the team's pregame video, during which she exhorts her team to work toward its true destiny: a second national title.
"Our next goal is to win six games in the NCAA tournament," Mulkey said afterward. "We've made that clear from day one. We're not afraid of pressure ... we want to win a national championship for Baylor University."
When Saturday's buzzer sounded, Mulkey walked along the sideline and embraced Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry. Asked afterward what was said between the two, Mulkey shook her head in dismissal.
"Y'all don't need to know all of that," Mulkey said. "I'm not going to do it ... that team needed to be complimented; it was one heck of a basketball game."
Texas Tech had the ball with only a few seconds remaining and a chance to tie. But when the game started, it seemed the Red Raiders were going to be blown back to Lubbock.
Four minutes in, Curry pulled her stool in front of her players, looked them in the eye, and said, "We're in good shape; we're OK."
This might have been an accurate statement during other timeouts this season, but it didn't seem particularly true on Saturday night with Curry's team trailing 9-3 early against top-ranked and undefeated Baylor.
What did Curry consider "good" about the shape her team was in?
Texas Tech's only made basket was a 3-pointer, which inadvertently banked in from the top of the key. Baylor, on the other hand, had a trio of easy buckets inside. The lopsided start was courtesy of Baylor center Brittney Griner, who caught the ball in the post and repeatedly dumped it off to streaking teammates for easy layins.
Each time Texas Tech brought the ball down the floor, the sold-out crowd of 10,381 roared in anticipation of another stop and, a few seconds later, what it assumed would be another score. In those first few minutes, the Red Raiders' offensive sets looked impotent, as if they were trying to carve wood with a spoon.
Somehow, Curry gathered her players and managed to convince them everything was going to be OK.
And, for 35 minutes of Saturday's game, it was.
Aided in the first half by some lousy outside shooting from the Bears (0-for-6 from 3), and a poor first half from Griner (2-for-7 from the floor), Texas Tech climbed back into the game and built a 25-16 lead with 3 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in the half.
None of this pleased Mulkey, who at one point in the second half nearly ripped off her white blazer. (She actually did rip the collar and lamented this fact afterward.) Her team's undefeated season was slipping away, one missed shot at a time. Sideline stomping is not a unique activity for Mulkey, but on this night there seemed a palpable amount of frustration in her gestures and movements. You got the feeling Mulkey wanted to drop-kick her clipboard. And rightfully so.
Although the Red Raiders could not hang on for victory, the blueprint they used for slowing Griner is worth mentioning. On most set defensive possessions, Curry had her team in what looked like a 1-1-3 zone with the bottom three alternating on doubling Griner. On another night, when Baylor was more effective from the perimeter, it's possible the Bears could have shot Texas Tech out of the zone. But on this night, they finished 20-for-57 from the floor and 2-for-13 from 3. Texas Tech's strategy made sense: Die by what might kill you, not what you know will.
The Red Raiders' zone and double-teaming Griner is not a breakthrough philosophy.
"The defense was nothing new, it was just run a little bit differently," Griner said.
But what looked different was the top two defenders and how they worked in tandem to cover so much of the floor while the three players down low grappled with Griner. Baylor missed some open shots, but the Bears were also forced to put the ball on the floor by good closeout defense.
The game wore down. And when it did, Griner (18 points, 14 rebounds) was still there. Still 6-foot-8. Still able to tip the ball to herself, be patient and score down low. With 8.6 seconds left on the clock, Griner hit two free throws to put it out of reach: 56-51.
That would be the final score.
And then Baylor would celebrate its share of another Big 12 title, the first of the titles the Bears aim to win this season.