Commentary

Baylor seeks repeat as NCAA champ

Originally Published: March 22, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

As coach of the last team to beat Baylor in the NCAA tournament, Texas A&M's Gary Blair rates as the closest thing to an expert on that particular topic.

He talks about the need to score from the perimeter, to come up with some kind of effective zone defense … and then one other thing. A benefit that the Aggies had in facing Baylor that most teams don't: familiarity. In a little more than a year -- the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons -- Baylor and Texas A&M met six times. Baylor won the first five of those games.

"And we won the one that counted most," Blair said.

His Aggies did indeed upset top-seeded Baylor 58-46 in their 2011 Elite Eight matchup in Dallas on the way to Texas A&M's NCAA title.

[+] EnlargeBaylor
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezAfter going 40-0 last season, Baylor is 32-1 this season.

That was a Baylor team led by sophomores and a freshman; this year's No. 1 seed Lady Bears are led by several of those same players, who are now seniors and a junior. Still, what it takes to stop the Green Machine is pretty much the same stuff. Which remains quite difficult to do.

"You've got to make outside shots," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "Though it sounds really simple, you've got to shoot a high percentage; you can't think you're going to get a lot of second or third opportunities. The time that A&M beat them, they got outside opportunities, and they made them."

Baylor opens its defense of its NCAA title on Sunday (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET) in Waco, Texas, as Brittney Griner and her fellow seniors say goodbye to the Ferrell Center. Another Texas team, Prairie View A&M, battled through four overtimes to win the SWAC tournament title game and get an automatic NCAA bid -- and the right to face Baylor.

Rarely has any team fought harder for the opportunity to be annihilated. But at least the Panthers will be able to say they went against one of the all-time best. That's both individually with Griner, and collectively, with a Baylor squad that is trying to become the fourth program to win back-to-back NCAA women's basketball titles.

Baylor comes into this NCAA tournament just shy of the perfection that the 40-0 Lady Bears had last year, thanks to an upset by Stanford in Hawaii in November. That loss didn't seem to harm Baylor at all; rather, it galvanized the team even more and prevented any sense of complacency.

It pushed Baylor out of the No. 1 spot in the rankings for a while, but the Lady Bears reclaimed the top spot in January. They kept it for the final 11 weeks of the Associated Press poll, which annually concludes before the NCAA tournament. For the last four weeks, Baylor was a unanimous choice.

And now the path before Baylor is familiar. As mentioned, the Lady Bears start at the Ferrell Center, where they haven't lost since March 7, 2010. Two victories there would put them in Oklahoma City, a 4½-hour drive north of Waco on Interstate 35.

Baylor is the best defensive team that's ever played the game. … They've got the best point guard in Odyssey Sims, defensively and leadership-wise. I love their team.

-- Texas A&M coach Gary Blair

There, if seeds hold, Baylor would face No. 4 Purdue, a team that tied for third in the Big Ten, although the Boilermakers won their league tournament. And then -- again if seeds hold -- there would be a rematch of last season's Elite Eight matchup with Tennessee.

The Lady Bears won that one 77-58. In the teams' matchup earlier this season in Waco, it was no contest: 76-53, Baylor.

There's no other way to say it: Baylor is a very strong favorite to make it to New Orleans. It would give coach Kim Mulkey a chance to play for an NCAA title in her home state of Louisiana, and it would be another milestone in her Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Like UConn in its back-to-back perfect seasons of 2009 and 2010, Baylor has done all this in the past two years as the front-runner. The Lady Bears are that one loss to Stanford short of perfection this season, but how both UConn and Baylor handled their sky-high expectations is very similar.

Mulkey and the Lady Bears seethed after the 2011 season-ending loss to Texas A&M, but put all that energy into moving forward. Baylor has never shied from acknowledging -- this year or last -- that anything short of the championship would be a major disappointment.

"We're a great team," junior point guard Odyssey Sims said after Baylor won its third consecutive Big 12 tournament title on March 11. "[But] there's always something to be corrected."

The Lady Bears did some "correcting" with their 75-47 dismissal of Iowa State in the league championship game. The day before, they'd actually had a nerve-wracking victory, holding off Oklahoma State 77-69 in the semifinals. The Cowgirls had been within three points of Baylor in the final minute. Often at that time in games, Baylor's starters have gone to the bench, the win safely tucked away.

Oklahoma State, though, got a steal and a layup with 1:34 left, and trailed just 72-69 at the one-minute mark. Just a second before, though, Griner made what turned out to be the decisive play. She stole the ball, and Baylor settled in to milk the clock for a good possession. They got it: Jordan Madden nailed a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left, assisted by Sims.

That was really the ballgame. Oklahoma State got off two more shot attempts; one missed, the other was blocked by Griner. Sims closed out the scoring with two free throws.

[+] EnlargeOdyssey Sims
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M coach Gary Blair calls Baylor junior Odyssey Sims the best point guard in the nation.

But if this close call suggested Baylor was rattled, if the rest of the country had hope that a few things were coming unglued … the Big 12 final squashed that. A little more than 24 hours later, Baylor looked invincible again versus the Cyclones.

"I think we're where we need to be, especially with this game," Griner said after recording 31 points, eight rebounds and five blocks against Iowa State. "If we can play like we played tonight, anything's possible. I think we're on track, just like we were last year."

In 2012, you'll recall, the "track" was like a superspeedway for Baylor. They raced past UC Santa Barbara by 40, Florida by 19, Georgia Tech by 15, Tennessee by 19, Stanford by 12 and Notre Dame by 19. The only drama came with a brief scuffle at the end of the Tennessee game. The basketball itself was brisk and efficient.

That gave Baylor the program's second NCAA title. But unlike the first, in 2005, all the starters were returning. Repeat was everyone's immediate thought.

Over the summer, Griner suffered a broken wrist while riding her long board, and she declined a chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. But for the most part, it was just business as usual when Baylor started this season … until Nov. 16. Baylor had already pounded Lamar and Kentucky, the preseason SEC favorite, and then travelled to Hawaii.

With an injured Sims missing most of the game, Baylor fell 71-69 to Stanford. Once again, foes began to hope about supposed Baylor vulnerabilities. But those have never really materialized.

Baylor beat two of its marquee nonconference opponents in December. It won 73-61 at Notre Dame. Then, in the aforementioned rout of Tennessee, Baylor got off to a 17-0 lead and never allowed for any suspense.

There was a lot of that, though, in the Feb. 18 game versus UConn in Hartford, Conn. Baylor trailed by three points at halftime. Still, with a 50-point second half, the Lady Bears kept their composure in crunch time and won 76-70.

They then closed out their second consecutive undefeated Big 12 slate; they are 51-1 in regular-season league play the past three years.

Baylor averages 81 points per game while holding teams to 53.9. The Lady Bears are shooting 51.5 percent from the field; their foes are at 32.8. They have 327 more rebounds, 157 more blocked shots, and 133 fewer turnovers than their opponents.

"You've got to be committed, because you're going to have to find a way to score on them," Blair said. "You've got to have somebody who, like [UConn's] Stefanie Dolson, can hit three or four shots from outside [against Griner]. You've got to be physical with them. And in the second half, if it's close, they're going in to Griner 90 percent of the time.

"Don't let her get over there on the right side of the block. She's deadly when she gets over there."

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/Eric GayBrittney Griner making snow angels in the confetti after last year's final whistle in Denver was one of the most indelible Final Four celebrations.

Actually, Griner has been pretty deadly whenever she's had her hands on the ball inside. She is averaging 23.6 points and 9.0 rebounds; she has 137 blocks and also a positive assist-to-turnover margin, 79 to 60.

Meanwhile, Sims is averaging 12.5 points, with 165 assists, 75 steals and 62 turnovers. Blair said Sims plays "like she's already in the WNBA."

"You have to understand that Brittney Griner is going to get her points," Warlick said. "I think the most important thing about Baylor is Odyssey Sims. She has a toughness; the team feeds off her. She's an unbelievable point guard. She makes plays when she needs to; she gets steals when they need to.

"You somehow have to contain her and make sure that she is not as effective as she's always been. And they have a veteran supporting [cast]."

Madden and Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden have started again all season, both averaging a little more than seven points per game. They've combined for 235 assists and 89 steals.

Brooklyn Pope has started the majority of games at power forward. Last year's starter there, Destiny Williams, has come off the bench most of the time, starting 10 games.

They've both fit in their roles pretty seamlessly, with Williams actually averaging a few more minutes per game. Pope averages 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds; Williams 8.5 and 6.7. When teams try valiantly to bottle up Griner, she has been able to consistently find Williams and Pope or one of the guards for baskets. Griner rarely gets impatient, and her teammates' reliability doesn't force her to.

Add in freshmen guards Alexis Prince and Niya Johnson, who are both averaging double-digit minutes, and it's hard to see where the Lady Bears leave openings for anyone to stop them.

For Baylor's seniors, there is one mission left: to be the last team to walk off the floor in New Orleans.

"I don't take championships for granted. We may never win another one," Mulkey said after the Big 12 final. "This may be our last Big 12 championship. Who knows? But the thing you can't say about this bunch is that we were talented and never won it all.

"I think, other than the one little epic disappointment, they've had a great run in the Big 12 and the NCAA tournament. I really do, whether we ever win another one."

Ah, yes … that one "little" epic disappointment. That was the 2011 Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M, of course. But consider this: What program has reacted better to dramatic NCAA tournament losses?

In 2004, Baylor lost to Tennessee in the Sweet 16 after a controversial call with two-tenths of a second left sent the Lady Vols to the foul line for the winning free throws. The next season, Baylor won the national championship.

The loss two years ago to Texas A&M was also an enormous disappointment; the Lady Bears had beaten the Aggies three times previously that season. But, again, Baylor bounced back with a national championship last year.

Blair's Aggies left the Big 12 this season for the SEC, and they won the tournament title. Now on the opposite side of the NCAA bracket -- the Aggies are the No. 3 seed in the Norfolk Regional -- they won't face Baylor unless the teams meet in the national final.

"Baylor is the best defensive team that's ever played the game," Blair said. "Because Griner allows you to do a lot of things outside. They've got the best point guard in Odyssey Sims, defensively and leadership-wise.

"I love their team; I'd love to play them for the national championship. But I've got a lot of work to do. They'll probably be in it."

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

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