The year began with lofty expectations before a series of unusual occurrences derailed the ride. Yet at the same time, the team showed just what it can do when everything clicks, and the Lady Bears stand poised to continue their run of excellence this coming winter.
The year ended unexpectedly, as the team "only" reached the Elite Eight after ranking No. 1 in the country for most of January and February.
"We've elevated this program to a point where when you don't make a Final Four or win a national championship, we're disappointed," admits head coach Kim Mulkey. "And I guess that's okay, as long as we keep it in perspective.
"We were 34-3, the most wins in the history of Lady Bear basketball. We won the Big 12 regular season and tournament championships. We had four sellouts, and we were sixth in the country in fan attendance. Sometimes we forget all those things because we lost at the end. But I think as we reflect back on the year, we've got to remember all the good things."
In the end, however, a series of misfortunes added up to cost Baylor a shot at the title. The Lady Bears lost in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Texas A&M -- after Baylor had defeated the Lady Aggies three times earlier in the season.
"I thought [senior point guard] Kelli Griffin quitting really affected our team, and a lot of people don't realize the effect it had because we continued to win basketball games," says Mulkey. Griffin left the team just a week before the season began, and when an ACL tear ended sophomore backup Shanay Washington's season just two weeks later, talented freshman Odyssey Sims was pushed into a starring role far earlier than the Lady Bears' coach had planned.
"We had to put the ball in the hands of a freshman point guard. She is an unbelievable talent, but it's not fair to ask her to take you to the promised land to win a national championship when she doesn't have a mentor on that floor to learn from," says Mulkey. "I use this analogy: Can you name a quarterback who was a freshman right out of high school who has ever won a national championship in football? I thought she did remarkably to take us as far as she did."
[In answer to Mulkey's question: only one true freshman quarterback has led his team to a national title in the last 50 years: Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway, in 1985.]
Mulkey, the 2011 United States Basketball Writers Association's National Coach of the Year, described her team as "the young leading the young" in a March interview with Sports Illustrated. The team had only one senior, honorable mention Associated Press All-American Melissa Jones, in its primary rotation, and even she had to fight through a freak, late-season injury that severely limited the vision in her right eye. Besides Jones, the Lady Bears' top seven players consisted of six sophomores and a freshman.
"There were always those young mistakes that we would make -- turnovers, not taking care of the ball," remembers first-team AP All-American and team co-captain Brittney Griner, herself just a sophomore. "A young point guard, Odyssey did an outstanding job this year; she was young, but definitely willing and ready to take on that challenge."
Even Mulkey -- a Hall of Fame point guard at Louisiana Tech during her playing days -- was never placed under the sort of pressure Sims faced.
"I was a player off of the bench, getting to learn from an older player my first couple of years in college," Mulkey recalls. "I had a player who had been in the system to learn from. But [this team] will get better, because of the experience and the amount of playing time that they got.
"Each team and each year brings a different opportunity, and we will sit down as a team and we will set the goals that we want to achieve at the beginning of the season next year. Winning championships will be part of it."
Next year's squad should be able to build from the positives of this year's successes and the lessons learned from this year's disappointments. The team will return 12 of 14 players from the past season while only adding one new player, 6-foot-4 post Sune Agbuke, to the roster.
Furthermore, Sims and Griner will each have the additional benefit of having trained with some of the nation's best players this summer. Sims, the USBWA's National Freshman of the Year, participated in the 2011 USA Women's Under-19 World Championship Team Trials in May, while Griner was the only current collegiate player invited to attend the USA National Team training camp.
"I'm honored to have been invited to attend the training camp," Griner says. "I'm looking to go soak in knowledge and the little things to help out my game that I can bring back here."
She says all the experience will only make the team better.
"Us sophomores will be juniors, so we'll have more people who are experienced and ready to help out. We've got only one freshman coming in, so we should be able to get Sune right into the flow of everything and not have to repeat so much stuff; we can just add on and perfect our play."
"I think we're getting better as a team," adds the soft-spoken Sims. "We still have a lot to work on, but I think we're progressing, and we'll be ready for this upcoming season."
"You never forget that one game," says Griner, referring to the loss to A&M. "I'm using that as motivation. I'm not going to dwell on it and let it bring me down; I'm going to use it in a positive way, and that's what I tell the team. Let's not dwell on that one loss. We had a heck of a season. Just use that as motivation to help us drive forward. I expect us to have another great season."
With ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated writers already pegging the Lady Bears as the early favorite to start the 2011-12 season at No. 1 in the polls, next year should certainly be another fun ride.