WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!: Lady Bears Win 4th Straight Tourney Title, 74-71March 11, 2014
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - Asking Kim Mulkey to pick out her favorite Big 12 championship would be like getting the Baylor coach to take one of her two children over the other.
She won't and shouldn't.
But it's hard to imagine that any of them were any sweeter or more satisfying than the seventh-ranked and top-seeded Lady Bears' 74-71 win over No. 5 West Virginia in Monday's Big 12 Championship final at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The extra caveat is that this one came eight days after a 71-69 loss at home to the Mountaineers that cost them an outright regular-season title. Pictures of West Virginia celebrating on Baylor's home floor were placed above each Lady Bear player's locker as a reminder of exactly what the Mountaineers took from them.
"They're all special. I don't ever take them for granted," said Mulkey, whose team improved to 29-4 in winning its fourth consecutive Big 12 tournament title and 11th overall championship (tournament and regular season) over the last 10 years. "I'm as good as those kinds in that locker room, as good as those coaches that recruit for me. And you keep it in perspective. One day, you'll look back and go, 'Wow, we made a pretty good run there - six out of the last 10 tourney championships.' That's hard to do."
This one might have been harder than any of them.
West Virginia (29-4) just refused to go away, even when Baylor took a double-digit first-half lead, 36-25,on an offensive rebound and put-back by freshman forward Nina Davis.
"What makes it exciting is it was a good game," Mulkey said. "People want to see good basketball, and I thought today you saw good defense. I thought you saw great players on the floor, and I thought you saw role players who were probably the difference in their team."
You can put Baylor sophomore guard Niya Johnson at the top of that list. The Big 12's assists leader and ranked No. 1 nationally in assists-to-turnover ratio, Johnson came into Monday's tournament final averaging just 4.7 points per game and had scored in double figures just three times in her first 68 career games.
But Johnson had nine points by halftime and finished with a career-high 19, hitting 9-of-9 from the free-throw line and 5-of-8 from the floor.
"I thought the difference for them was Johnson, to be honest with you," said West Virginia coach Mike Carey, whose team had a 12-game winning streak snapped.
Mulkey said she has "been on Niya all year to shoot the shot and to be a better free-throw shooter."
"It's just good to that when you tell a player something, they go work on it, and they get to perform in a game, and they get to see why you tell them those things."
Johnson, the same player that shot just 44.4 percent from the line last season and 67.3 percent through the first 32 games this year, stepped up and calmly sank four straight free throws in the last 25 seconds with the game on the line.
"I believe in myself," Johnson said, "and I proved to (Mulkey) that I can hit them when it does count."
This game could not have started much worse for the Lady Bears, who fell behind 5-0 and then watched in varying levels of shock and concern as Sims limped off the court with an ankle injury less than two minutes into the opening half.
So, what does Baylor do with its senior All-American on the bench? No worries, the Lady Bears reeled off nine unanswered points, with seven of them coming from freshmen.
"Just because we're young doesn't mean we can't win any games," Sims said. "Give credit to our bench players. They came in and gave us the spark we needed when our starters weren't really doing anything."
While Sims played just 10 minutes in the first half, turning it over three times and scoring four points, Davis pumped in 14 of her 16 points and continued her late-season surge. The 5-11 freshman forward earned MVP honors on an all-tournament team that included Sims, West Virginia's Bria Holmes and Aysa Bussie and TCU's Zahna Medley.
"Coming into the year, it definitely wasn't my focus, so I didn't expect I would be where I am now and getting MVP," said Davis, who was 8-of-11 from the field and added five boards. "I owe it all to God, my teammates and my coaches; and without them, it wouldn't be possible. I'm just blessed."
Baylor was up 38-32 at the break, and it could have been a much bigger spread. Holmes, who scored 19 of her game-high 24 points in the first half, hit a layup off a back-court steal by Aysa Bussie. And then Johnson launched a shot from just inside the half-court line that rimmed out.
West Virginia came out much more aggressive at the start of the second half, scoring on each of its first four possessions and tying it at 49-49 on an Averee Fields free throw with 12:44 left in the game.
"I think we played a little bit tentative the first half," said Fields, who scored all 10 of her points in the second half. "Second half, Coach Carey just told us to play our game, to do what we normally do, and I think we came out with a lot of energy. We like running up and down the floor, so we tried to do that more in the second half."
Holmes was 8-of-12 overall and hit her fourth 3-pointer of the game to give the Mountaineers a 52-49 lead Back-to-back layups by Fields and Christal Caldwell made it a 56-51 game right about the midway point of the second half.
But just like West Virginia, Baylor wasn't about to go away.
Sune Agbuke knocked down a mid-range jumper just beyond the free-throw line to slow West Virginia's momentum.
With the teams trading bucket for bucket, the lead changed seven times in the last five minutes. After missing a pair of free throws, freshman forward Khadijah Cave rebounded a Sims miss and got a put-back that put the Lady Bears back on top, 63-62, with 4:50 left.
Cave, who chipped in with seven points, six boards and a block, hit another free throw on Baylor's next possession. But Taylor Palmer buried a trey after a pair of offensive boards that gave West Virginia the lead back.
Like two prize fighters going at it in the ring, the two teams traded blows over the next couple of minutes. Buckets by Sims and Johnson were answered by Fields and Linda Stepney, as the Mountaineers had a one-point lead going into the final minute.
After Holmes missed a driving shot off the glass, Sims came off a screen by Agbuke and hit a pull-up jumper from 18 feet to give the Lady Bears the lead for good, 70-69, with 53 seconds showing on the clock.
"That one wasn't a runner, she just pulled up and knocked it down," Mulkey said. "That was a big bucket."
"I was just very focused," Sims said. "I knew we had to get - not a quick shot, but just a good shot. Ball was in my hands, I came off the screen, and I knew they weren't going to let me penetrate. I didn't want to run over anybody, so I jumped up and shot and made it."
On the defensive end, Johnson came up with a huge play when she corralled an errant lob pass from Fields to Bussie and saved it inbounds to Sims. Stepney answered a pair of Johnson free throws with a driving layup, but Johnson iced it when she knocked down two more free throws after being fouled by Bussie on the inbounds pass with 4.7 seconds left.
With Baylor holding a three-point lead, the team discussed possibly fouling and putting the Mountaineers on the line. But Mulkey said the seniors just wanted to play defense, and not give them a chance to win it by rebounding a missed free throw and hitting a 3.
"A lot of coaches believe in fouling and putting them at the line, you're getting the ball back," Mulkey said. "They just looked at me, and then for a split second Odyssey said, 'Coach, no, you've always said what if they miss the second one, hit a three and we lose. The worst we can do is go to overtime, and you like to hear them take ownership."
On the final play, Stepney pushed the ball up in a hurry and missed an off-balance 3-pointer over Johnson, setting off a celebration by the Lady Bears.
Despite losing two-time National Player of the Brittney Griner and four other seniors off last year's 34-2 team, the Lady Bears won at least a share of their fourth consecutive regular-season title and claimed their fourth straight Big 12 tournament title and sixth in the last 10 years.
"I think maybe when the season started, they were curious to see if we'd be any good," Mulkey said, "so maybe that question was answered. But I have to believe that people know how much we love women's basketball and they know that we're going to recruit hard and we're going to play hard and we're going to be somebody to be reckoned with year-in and year-out."
Baylor is expected to be a No. 2 seed when the NCAA Championship selections are announced on March 17 and will host the first and second round on March 22 and 24 at the Ferrell Center. The NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Selection Show will air at 6 p.m. on ESPN.
Here is a link to the boxscore from Monday's Baylor-West Virginia women's basketball game.
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