OKLAHOMA CITY — There have been seasons when winning the Big 12 women’s basketball tournament was not terribly important to Baylor. Times when the Lady Bears were really good and knew it, and the league tournament was just something to get through before the NCAA tournament started.
But this season, the Big 12 tournament — which Baylor has all but owned the past several years — meant a little bit more. The Lady Bears have had their share of adversity this season, including losing senior point guard Kristy Wallace to an ACL injury on senior night. Talk about a gut punch. A team that was already thin was down not just a key player, but one who was Baylor’s heartbeat.
Yet Monday, the Lady Bears were celebrating another championship. They beat Texas for the third time this season, 77-69, and claimed the program’s ninth Big 12 tournament title and seventh in the past eight years. Last season’s loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 final is the only exception in that stretch.
Kalani Brown, the tourney MVP, and Lauren Cox, who combines with Brown to form the Lady Bears’ dynamic post duo, made the all-tournament team. But so did freshman Alexis Morris, who has had to step in as a starter at point guard with Wallace out.
“I think we realized, ‘OK, we can do this,'” Cox said of the confidence gained by winning this tournament even without Wallace. “We’ve gone through so much this year.”
Cox, Brown and Morris all played 40 minutes, something that they have had to get used to. Brown, who was the Big 12 player of the year, had 20 points and eight rebounds. Cox finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks. And Morris, a youngster of few words, had 19 points and three assists.
Asked about how well she played despite being just a rookie, Morris answered, “It’s always fun to compete.”
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey laughed at that brief answer, but it’s OK. Morris just needs to play. Mulkey can do the talking.
“Everybody was watching that: ‘Can they do it without Kristy Wallace?'” Mulkey said. “And I kept telling y’all, the kid [Morris] can play. She had to learn from a senior.”
Wallace, the Australian whose on-court intensity and floor vision have been so big for Baylor, is now leading the Lady Bears in other ways. Her teammates say that Wallace is still a key voice in the locker room and on the bench. They miss her on court, but she remains an important part of Baylor.
“I just want to do my best and support my teammates; I’m so proud of what they’ve done,” said Wallace, who had a team-best 155 assists and also averaged 12.9 points this season before suffering her knee injury Feb. 26. “I told Alexis before the game to just stay focused and keep a clear mind; this is such a mental game. She did amazingly well.
“With Kalani and Lauren, they have performed for 40 minutes in so many games, and to come out with the amount of aggression, tenacity and effort … it’s such a credit to them.”
Credit Mulkey, and the Baylor program, for having maintained the level of excellence for so long. Especially the past decade, the Lady Bears have dominated the league. Baylor’s record the past 10 seasons is 300-37 overall and 156-18 in Big 12 regular-season games. During that stretch, the Lady Bears have won the conference tournament eight times.
You can understand how frustrating this can get for the rest of the Big 12, but especially for Texas. Most of the league’s teams were blown out this season by Baylor; they couldn’t compete with the Lady Bears.
But the Longhorns know they can compete. Texas is ranked No. 8 in the country, and currently projects as a No. 2 seed in Charlie Creme’s Bracketology. Yet the Longhorns have lost 18 of their past 19 to Baylor. The past two meetings, at least, have been close. After the Lady Bears won 81-56 at Baylor on Jan. 25, Texas made it a much better game in Austin, falling 93-87 on Feb. 19.
And then in an entertaining Big 12 final Monday, Texas had its chances to win. But the Longhorns’ offense struggled inside against Cox and Brown, and didn’t get the ball to post player Jatarie White (6-of-8, 12 points) as much as they needed to.
Coach Karen Aston also took the blame for the technical foul she picked up with 1 minute, 41 seconds left and the Longhorns trailing by just one point. Aston was not happy with a foul called against Joyner Holmes on Cox.
“I had a poorly, poorly timed technical that I take full responsibility for,” Aston said. “I’m disappointed in myself. Definitely my fault on that one.”
Cox made the Longhorns pay by hitting all four free throws, giving Baylor a five-point lead that it wouldn’t give up.
Afterward, Mulkey praised her team’s “guts” and toughness, and she also put in a plug for the Big 12 — especially Oklahoma, which is on the wrong side of the bubble — with the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Baylor and Texas, of course, are locks, but Oklahoma State might be the only other Big 12 team that makes it in the field. If so, it would be the fewest teams the Big 12 has gotten into the women’s NCAA tournament since the league began in 1996-97.
But Baylor keeps doing its part to keep the Big 12’s footprint up at the highest level of the game. The Lady Bears have been stopped short of the Final Four with some difficult defeats since their 2012 perfect season, including four consecutive Elite Eight losses.
One of these years, though, they’ll be back at the Final Four. Maybe even this year, despite losing their starting point guard in the last game of the regular season. Because this is what Baylor does: Find a way.
“I knew it would be tougher,” Mulkey said, “but we just expect to win.”