TAMPA, Fla. — Kalani Brown watched the 2012 national championship game between Baylor and Notre Dame, a game that ended with the Bears winning the national championship. She remembers a little bit about that game. She mostly remembers that her mother, Dee, made sure that she was going to sit down and watch it.
“We won that one right? Remember, I was pretty young,” Brown said. “But my mom would point at Coach Mulkey and say, ‘I played for her. She was my coach.’"
Seven years later, the legacy of Kalani Brown and Kim Mulkey takes another big step forward on Sunday night when Brown and her teammates take the court in their first NCAA title game against defending national champion Notre Dame.
For the Bears, this has been a stated goal all season and they played all season like a team that was preparing to get there. Baylor comes into the title game with a 35-1 record.
Brown comes into the title game knowing this is truly her last chance to achieve the ultimate goal with a program and a coach that she’s known since she was in the 6th grade.
“Coach Mulkey has literally seen me grow up,” Brown said. “When I came to Baylor, I knew she was going to get me because she knows what I’m capable of. Kim and my mom are not that much different. My mom was hard on me too.”
Brown’s mother Dee began coaching her when she was six years old. The daughter of NBA star P.J. Brown, who had a 15-year career in the NBA, Kalani Brown has been living the basketball life since the day she was born. She was in the stands to watch her dad play in the NBA Finals in the final year of his career in 2008.
Brown’s size got Mulkey’s attention when she had barely entered middle school.
“I was on Baylor’s radar for a long time,” Brown said.
Which means that Brown and Mulkey have a long relationship that will add a new chapter Sunday.
“Kim is like family to me and I’m like family to her,” Brown said. “She’s everything. She’s fiery, she’s passionate, she knows how to motivate me.”
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Brown came to Waco with the thing you can’t teach, a 6-foot-7 frame. She came in with strong fundamentals that come with being the daughter of both a coach and an NBA star. But even then, she admits, she was not fully prepared to meet the expectations of a coach that has mentored some of the best post players in the game’s history, such as Brittney Griner.
“I couldn’t last more than four minutes before I was gassed,” Brown said. “I’ve come a long way. My game has definitely gotten faster, quick. I make more moves, the pace of the game works for me.”
Mulkey said Brown was a kind, sweet, happy kid, who played like it.
“I thought she just really kind of wanted to blend it instead of using her size to be dominant,” Mulkey said. “I wanted her to ask for the ball. It’s okay to raise your voice and holler ‘Give me the ball’. Sometimes that doesn’t come naturally for kids.”
Brown will not argue with that assessment.
“I was always laid back,” Brown said. “I wasn’t as aggressive. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. She definitely put that dog in me.”
Brown is no longer reluctant to be dominant. While her numbers this season aren’t eye-popping – she is averaging 15.7 points and 8.1 rebounds a game on a balanced team that also includes 6-foot-5 post partner Lauren Cox – Brown knows when she needs to take over.
Case in point: Friday night’s national semifinal against Oregon. At halftime, the Ducks had a one-point lead and Brown was finding her way in a crowded paint of Oregon defenders. Brown went 5-for-5 from the floor in the second half and finished with a team-high 22 points and seven rebounds, to go with Cox’s 21 points and 11 rebounds.
“You saw her last night, she went to the offensive boards. She had a presence in the paint,” Mulkey said. “There’s nothing about her that’s phenomenally better other than the maturation process…her fundamentals of the game were there. Kalani is just Kalani.”
Brown’s teammates know the happy-go-lucky player that Mulkey talks about. They also know a different side.
“She has a sassy attitude, a drama-queen,” Cox said. “It’s the expressions and when she rolls her eyes.”
“Not when she’s looking,” Cox said with a laugh.
Brown said she thinks she’s grown this season, facing some of the best posts in the nation, particularly in the NCAA tournament. She’s already gone up against Cal’s Kristine Anigwe, Iowa’s Megan Gustafson and Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard in this tournament run.
“I know a lot more now. Seeing so many different styles of play, just seeing so many different styles and learning the game from coach,” Brown said. “I’ve grown a lot.”
Now comes the biggest test of that growth. A shot at the national title against a Notre Dame team with more experienced posts in Brianna Turner and Jessica Shepard.
“My only mindset was that UConn's season was gonna end tonight...— Notre Dame WBB (@ndwbb) April 6, 2019
... no matter what it took.”@_Breezy_Briii’s triumphant return to the #WFinalFour was cemented by breaking @ruthriley00’s program block record in our National Semifinal win.#GoIrishpic.twitter.com/JjYQkULVIb
“I think I've been challenged this whole tournament by different post players, and I’ve taken something from each of those games and now [Brianna Turner]. I think I’ve seen every style,” Brown said. “I know Bri is long, athletic, can run the floor. She is a great shot blocker and she can finish around the rim. I’ve never played against her, but I’ve always watched her from afar. I know it’s going to be a battle.”
Brown said the Final Four experience has been more than she thought it would be.
“In every way. I’ve never been here before,” Brown said. “Most of my friends on other teams have been here. Katie Lou (Samuelson), Napheesa (Collier), Arike (Ogunbowale). I’ve watched from afar. But to experience it is unreal to me.”
Brown said that Mulkey has been preaching that it’s fine to be happy to be in Tampa, but not content.
“There’s more to be had,” Brown said. “Why not go further? Don’t stop at just getting to the Final Four, why not win it all? I guess our motivation now is ‘Why not?’ Just do it. Just play.”