Baylor's ready for the Big Dance
Griner (14-of-17) and Lady Bears put in championship-caliber performance
Of course, the worst thing that could have happened to Iowa State was Oklahoma State giving Baylor a scare in the Big 12 women's tournament semifinals.
In these past two seasons of dominance in their league, the Lady Bears just haven't faced many challenges. That can sometimes cause motivation problems, even for very talented teams.
But this is a mature, senior-led group that understands Baylor is seeking a place in the pantheon of "greatest teams in women's college history." So being the defending NCAA champion and running through the league undefeated for a second year in a row hasn't led to much lackadaisical, passionless play by Baylor.
However, Baylor wasn't "BAYLOR" for much of Sunday's semifinal against the Cowgirls. Credit Oklahoma State, which threw everything it had at the champs and made them sweat out a 77-69 victory.
But the Lady Bears understood that to some degree, they'd allowed that to happen. A team that didn't really need a wake-up call still got one. Sorry, Cyclones.
Monday night in Dallas, the Lady Bears crushed No. 2 seed Iowa State, 75-47. The Baylor fans came to Dallas' American Airlines Center and celebrated a suspense-free Big 12 final for the second year in a row.
Last season in Kansas City, the Lady Bears put a whipping on Texas A&M in the league tourney final in Kansas City. But that 23-point win -- which was then the largest margin of victory in the Big 12 final -- almost seemed like a nail-biter compared to Monday's 28-point romp that felt more like twice that much.
At least last year, it seemed the Aggies theoretically could have competed against Baylor in that final -- even though they actually didn't. With Texas A&M moving to the SEC this season, the 2013 Big 12 tourney champ was virtually predetermined before this season began.
As long as Baylor stayed healthy, the Lady Bears were not going to be stopped. You could understand why the Texas A&M players -- while fully appreciating the depth and toughness in the SEC, in which they won their tournament Sunday -- were relieved they didn't have to play Baylor to win a league title this year.
Because as long as the Lady Bears play as they did Monday night, they are very likely to repeat as NCAA champions.
Baylor has too many offensive weapons, led by Brittney Griner (31 points on 14-of-17 shooting) and Odyssey Sims (20 points on 7-of-9 accuracy).
Bayor has too much defense. Iowa State was 17-of-45 from the field, had six shots blocked and countless altered, and was outrebounded by 13.
And Baylor has too strong a desire to cement its place in women's hoops history. The Lady Bears are well aware of how they will separate themselves by joining UConn, Tennessee and Southern California as programs that have won at least two consecutive NCAA titles.
The teams meeting in Hartford, Conn., on Tuesday for the Big East tourney title -- Notre Dame and UConn -- would seem to have the best chance of preventing Baylor from repeating. Although, if Texas A&M plays at its best, the Aggies could possibly make Baylor work for it if they met. Texas A&M has height, speed, depth and retained familiarity with the Lady Bears.
Still, the formula for anybody beating Baylor -- even UConn, which I still believe has the best chance -- involves two things: That team really must be at its best, and the Lady Bears really must not be.
Monday, Baylor was a brick wall that Iowa State couldn't find any way to scale. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair has called Baylor the best defensive team ever in women's hoops, with its lock-down capability on the perimeter backed up by the great Griner. She can go out and challenge players away from the basket, yet still recover quickly enough to defend inside.
Iowa State had the frustrated feeling that so many teams have when facing Baylor: Getting good shots off against the Lady Bears can be about as difficult as trying to tie your shoes while sprinting.
The Cyclones actually did hit nine 3-pointers against the Lady Bears -- but only eight other shots from the field. Senior Anna Prins was the only Iowa State player who was able to break through the Baylor wall, scoring 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting. The 6-foot-6 Prins had an excellent last Big 12 tournament, scoring 66 points in three games.
Iowa State, which presents matchup problems for many teams, still can make some noise in the NCAA tournament. But there just wasn't much the Cyclones could do to Baylor. They lost their three games against the Lady Bears this season by an average of 23.7 points.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is an expert motivator, but she hasn't had to push a lot of buttons this season. However, you've got to figure that Mulkey probably relished the fact that Oklahoma State was able to give her team a jolt.
It's not that the Lady Bears don't listen to her; to the contrary, they consistently have proved they do. But the close call against the Cowgirls gave Mulkey another chance to get in her players' ears again with some vigor and urgency. And they responded.
Stanford beat Baylor this season, although that was in mid-November in Hawaii, and Sims was out most of that game with an injury. Notre Dame kept its early-December matchup with visiting Baylor close late into the game, but the Lady Bears still won by 12.
UConn had Baylor on the ropes at times during their game Feb. 18 in Hartford. Yet Baylor still came away with a 76-70 victory.
The Lady Bears have taken everybody's best shot -- and frankly, lots of hopeless shots -- now for nearly two full seasons, with only Stanford breaking through. Baylor added another trophy for its case Monday, as Griner and her fellow seniors finished the Big 12 portion of their careers. Baylor now has five Big 12 tournament titles, including four of the past five.
The Big 12 teams have had their fill of trying to stop the Green Machine. They're all just glad that next up, it will be somebody else's turn.