Commentary

Machine-like Baylor bound for Denver

Unbeaten Lady Bears (38-0) will play fellow 1-seed Stanford in national semifinals

Originally Published: March 26, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Some games are decided by heart and hustle being a little greater on one side than the other. But other games aren't really about that at all. They're about a team just being so talented, so efficient and so down-to-business that the squad seems almost machine-like.

That's how No. 1 seed Baylor looked Monday in a 77-58 NCAA tournament regional final win over second-seeded Tennessee. It was as though Kim Mulkey's Lady Bears were a group of basketball "terminators," relentlessly pursuing a victory with nothing able to stop them.

"I can see us as a bit of a machine," regional MVP Brittney Griner said, smiling, when that was suggested to her. "Especially working with Coach Mulkey. When one person isn't hitting, somebody else will step up. A new part to the machine comes in."

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBrittney Griner nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 23 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks.

We've seen teams look this way before; think Texas in 1986, UConn in 1995, 2002, '09 and '10, or Tennessee in 1998. They were all squads that went undefeated in NCAA play, as Baylor (38-0) is trying to do now.

Some of those unbeatens faced a few shaky times during their NCAA tournament runs, and some didn't. So far, Baylor hasn't, including Monday when the Lady Vols played the Lady Bears very hard but still couldn't put much of a dent in the Baylor defense and couldn't really slow them offensively, either.

"We've been putting that kind of effort out all year," Mulkey said of Monday night's tour de force. "Connecticut and Baylor women have led the country in field goal percentage defense all year, and it's something that we take great pride in. You can come to our practices sometimes and [the players] never get to shoot a shot. Defense wins ballgames for you. At the end of the year, when everybody is fatigued and everybody knows everything about each other, defense wins. I guess I learned from the two of the best, Pat and Leon."

Mulkey, who won an NCAA title with Baylor in 2005 and has her sights on another this year, is on the way to establishing herself in that same place in the coaching hierarchy as Tennessee's Pat Summitt and former Louisiana Tech mentor Leon Barmore.

Mulkey acknowledged that Monday was an emotional night for her, with the uncertainty surrounding Summitt's health and her future as Tennessee's coach.

"It's not fun coaching against Pat, but I have a job to do," Mulkey said. "What I do on that end of the floor coaching against her is the same thing she did coaching me [on the 1984 Olympic team].

"You learn from people like that. What do you say after the game? You say 'I love you' and that's about it."

As someone who has made her career about improving women's basketball, Summitt surely appreciates how Mulkey's team is playing now: with a single-minded efficiency that is like a boulder rolling down a mountain. If you're in its way, odds are you'll be flattened.

Griner nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 23 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots. Point guard Odyssey Sims had a team-high 27 points, and Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden had 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Hayden and Sims combined for eight 3-pointers; add that to the outside attack with Griner and Destiny Williams (nine points) inside, and good luck trying to figure out how to beat Baylor.

"It goes further than Brittney Griner," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "They all play well together, and they were exceptional tonight. We look at what they did offensively, but they're outstanding on the defensive end. They are just a great basketball team."

[+] EnlargeOdyssey Sims
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOdyssey Sims led Baylor in scoring with 27 points.

Tennessee ends its season at 27-9 and with another SEC tournament title -- but no Final Four. These Tennessee seniors, as a class, never made it that far; it's the first class that Summitt has had in the NCAA era (which began in 1982) to never play in a Final Four. (Although redshirt senior Vicki Baugh went as a freshman when the Candace Parker-led team won the 2008 NCAA title.) The most years in a row Tennessee previously had not made an NCAA Final Four was three, from 1992-94.

"We played them as strong as we could," said Tennessee senior Glory Johnson, who had 19 points. "I think everyone on our team gave all the effort they could have. As a senior, it's your last opportunity to show people the type of player you are. All of our seniors left it out there."

Actually, it won't be the last chance for Johnson or Shekinna Stricklen or Baugh to display their skills; Johnson and Stricklen will go very high in April's WNBA draft, and Baugh should get a shot in the league, too.

All will take their time with Summitt with them into pro ball and everything else they do in life.

"This team is about Pat Summitt," said Warlick, who fought tears while talking about her former coach and longtime boss. "This team has battled all year. I'm proud of them; I thought our team and coaching staff obviously was in a difficult situation. But this team was responsive, and I did everything I could.

"I want Pat's health to be better, but like Pat, this team never gave up and never used it as a crutch for how they were playing or what they did this year. As Pat represents this program, these five seniors represented it as well. This program is going to continue to do what Tennessee has always done."

[+] EnlargeKim Mulkey
AP Photo/Nati HarnikKim Mulkey's squad is aiming to become the seventh team to go perfect -- but the first to reach 40-0. Up next? Stanford.

There was a dust-up near the end of Monday's game that ended up being much ado about nothing. Stricklen and Sims got tangled as Sims fell to the floor after shooting. The two exchanged words, and had to be separated, and then three Baylor players -- Griner, Jordan Madden and Terran Condrey -- were ejected after they left the bench and went onto the floor. All of them clearly were trying to cool tempers, especially that of their teammate Sims, and officials said there would be no suspensions. The officials seemed to miss that at least two Tennessee players also left the bench, but the Lady Vols' intentions were the same as the Lady Bears: just to calm everyone down.

"It looked like I kind of pushed her, but I was trying to help her up at the end, and she took it the wrong way," said Stricklen, who led Tennessee with 22 points and 11 rebounds. "We had a little talking back and forth. But I'm cool with Odyssey. We played together with USA Basketball. I apologized to her after the game. [Fighting] is not me. I'm not that type of person."

Stricklen and Sims shared a long hug in the postgame handshake line.

"It was just the heat of the moment," Sims said. "Everything was cool. [Stricklen] told us, 'Go win the national championship.'"

To do that, the Lady Bears will next face fellow No. 1 seed Stanford in the national semifinals in Denver. The teams have not met this season; the Cardinal are in their fifth consecutive Final Four.

Griner is in her second Final Four; in her freshman season, Baylor beat Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on the way to the 2010 event in San Antonio. There, the Lady Bears lost to eventual national champion UConn.

This is a far more experienced Baylor team heading to the national semifinals.

"I'm really excited; right now it's starting to hit me a little bit more that we're going to the Final Four," Griner said. "When you say San Antonio, I just remember everything -- the whole experience. I can't wait. We're older now, and we know what we need to do to take care of business."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.