TAMPA — There is no doubt that this Final Four appearance is important to the Baylor Lady Bears. Since the 2010 -11 season, they boast the second-highest winning percentage among DI women’s basketball teams, trailing only UConn. Though unlike the Huskies, the wins have not translated into as many Final Four appearances or championships. After winning the title in 2012, they’ve failed to advance past the Elite Eight in each of the last six years. Last year, their run ended even earlier after Oregon State pulled off a 72-67 upset in the Sweet Sixteen. Nevertheless, coach Kim Mulkey doesn’t think of it as a drought.
“I don’t look at it like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s been seven years,’” she said during the team’s press conference Thursday. “I look at it like, Baylor is still an elite program; they’re in their fourth Final Four. Coaches coach a lifetime and never make it. I just don’t tend to put a time frame on it.”
As the trend of high-octane offenses and three-point shooting continues, the Lady Bears have found success taking the opposite approach. They use a more traditional high-low offense and put a heavy emphasis on defense.
WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR: The Ducks know they are good — and dangerous
At first, it may seem that this strategy hasn’t worked. The Lady Bears have surrendered 251 3-point field goals this season, the most by a Big 12 school. However, compare that to other statistics this season. Only 822 of 1,967 points given up by Baylor have come on 2-point field goals. That’s an average of just 11.4 2-point baskets per game. Much of this is due to Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox’s presence in the paint. Brown, a senior, attributes this success to their longstanding familiarity.
“I think I’ve known Lauren since I was 16,” she recalled. “I met her at USA trials. I’ve seen her on the AAU circuit. Playing with her now, as a teammate, I think it’s really helped. She knows everything I’m going to do. When we play against each other in practice, we cancel each other out because we already know what the other is going to do.” The senior has added four more All-American honors this year to increase her career total to 12.
WHAT TO KNOW: Bracket, schedule, and live updates from Tampa
Cox, who played high school basketball just two hours north of Baylor’s campus, has been a dominant player most of her career. She’s been voted the Big 12 defensive player of the year for two straight years. She is averaging a team high 2.54 blocks per game this season to help the Lady Bears attain the nation’s top spot in that category. She has the second highest number of blocks for a junior in school history with 91. On offense, she averages 12.9 points per game and shoots over 50 percent from the floor. It’s the perfect complement to Brown’s 15.5 points per game and 60.9 field goal percentage.
FINAL FOUR: 9 storylines to follow from Tampa
The Lady Bears also rank first nationally in defensive rebounds per game (33.0), rebound margin (+17.9) and field goal percentage defense (31.4 percent). They’ll have a tough task ahead of them when they take on Oregon Friday night. The Ducks, who are in the Women’s Final Four for the first time, boast the third-highest scoring offense in the nation, with an average of 85.4 points per game. Much of that comes from Lieberman-award finalist Sabrina Ionescu, who averages 19.9 points per game. However, Mulkey insists that her players, especially Cox, are ready for the challenge.
“She can defend any position on the floor if I asked her to,” Mulkey said of Cox. “She has a coach’s mentality and can see things happen before they happen. She understands the game probably as good as any player that I’ve ever coached.”