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LUCK OF THE IRISH: Lady Bears' Final 4 Road Goes Through Notre Dame

March 18, 2014

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

At the top of Kim Mulkey's wish list going into Monday's NCAA Tournament selections was staying away from defending national champion Connecticut and an undefeated second-ranked Notre Dame team.

She got half of her wish.

The fifth-ranked Baylor Lady Bears (29-4), already assured of hosting the 1st and 2nd round, earned the No. 2 seed for the South Bend (Ind.) Regional opposite the home-standing Fighting Irish from Notre Dame (32-0).

But to even get that far, they will have to get through two home games at the Ferrell Center first. Baylor opens against 15th-seeded Western Kentucky (24-8) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and would face the winner of the 3 p.m. game between seventh-seeded California (21-9) and 10th-seeded Fordham (25-7), with the second-round matchup set for 8 p.m. Monday.

"You never want to be in a region where you have to go play somebody and beat them on their home floor, but we're not going to worry about that at this point," Mulkey said. "We're going to think about Western Kentucky, and I have lots and lots of memories of playing those guys back when I was at Louisiana Tech. . . . We'll get in the film room and gather as much information as we can. I'll know more tomorrow after we've watched film and studied them."

Western Kentucky is a tradition-rich program that is making its 17th NCAA tournament appearance, going to Final Fours in 1985, '86 and '92 under then-head coach Paul Sanderford. But this is the Lady Toppers' first invite to the NCAA Championship since 2008, when they lost to seventh-seeded UTEP, 92-60.

Second-year head coach Michelle Clark-Heard's team is riding a 10-game winning streak, including a 61-60 upset of top-seeded Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Conference tournament final, when the Lady Toppers rallied from a double-digit deficit with a 18-4 closing run.

"It wasn't about cutting the nets down," said Clark-Heard, who played at Western Kentucky. "It was about getting this program back to the status of where it was. We have so much rich tradition here at WKU. That's what climbing the ladder was about. I'm just proud of the girls buying in. I'm very fortunate and blessed and honored to be sitting here as the head coach. I don't take one second or minute for granted."

Mulkey won't actually be there for the opening-round game. The NCAA suspended her for one tournament game after her postgame comments following last year's 82-81 loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16, so she will watch the game from home and turn the reins over to associate head coach Bill Brock.

"It's difficult, and yet it's not as bad as you think," she said, "because if you prepare them, those kids can go out there and win a basketball game; and they don't need us on that sideline, other than every now and then to call a timeout and make a few adjustments. . . . I have a staff that is as good as anybody in the country. And I have players that know what to do out there, and we will have them prepared. I can assure you that me being on that sideline will not matter one bit."

Senior guard Makenzie Robertson, who is also the coach's daughter, said it will be "a little bit different" without her barking at them from the sidelines. "She's a very dominant person out there."

"They may enjoy it," Mulkey said. "And if I see they're doing extremely well, I may suspend myself for the second game, because if Bill's got it under control, look, I don't need that stress. I'm getting old. I'll sit in front of the television and watch it if they do really well. I might consider that."

Not likely. This will be the second opening-round NCAA tournament game Mulkey has missed in the last six seasons and comes exactly five days after the last time.

Then-assistant coach Leon Barmore had to fill in as her replacement on March 22, 2009, when Mulkey was admitted to a Lubbock hospital following complications from a kidney stone removal. And the Lady Bears, also a No. 2 seed, had to rally for an 87-82 overtime victory over a 15th-seeded UTSA team.

"The difference is I hope I'm not sick when I'm watching it this time, that I'm healthy and enjoying it," she said.

While the suspension wouldn't keep her from scouting the 3 p.m. game between Cal and Fordham, Mulkey said she doesn't want to "come in a gym and walk out."

"That takes the focus away from the players, takes the focus away from the team," she said. "And they need to have a normal routine. I'll be cheering as hard as I can."

While this year's team had more success during the season, winning its fourth straight Big 12 regular-season and tournament crowns, the 2013-14 Lady Bears are similar to the 2009-10 team that reached the Final Four with five freshmen.

"The inexperience factor is there, because now it's really totally different than it's been all year," Mulkey said. "But the innocence factor in that it's new, it's exciting, your adrenaline is pumping, and I'm looking forward to taking this bunch on the floor the NCAA playoffs. What they have done this year, I expect them to keep doing that. When it's all said and done, make sure you walk off the floor and you don't have an ounce of energy left in your body; you have given everything you have."

Freshman forward Nina Davis, the Big 12 Championship MVP and a first-team All-Big 12 pick, is averaging 14.6 points and a team-high 8.9 rebounds going into her first NCAA tournament.

"I wouldn't say I wasn't nervous in the Big 12 tournament," she said. "I think before the game, everybody has a little nerves. But once I get out there and start playing, everything goes away and it just starts to flow."

With the potential of two more games at the Ferrell Center, Robertson said she is looking forward to making up for a disappointing 71-69 Senior Day loss to West Virginia.

"It's the best situation we could have had," she said. "I guess it's kind of the luck of the draw that it happened to be my senior. We didn't end Senior Day the way we wanted to, so we have two more games to finish it right, hopefully."

As far as the possibility of facing Notre Dame on its home court, where the Lady Bears pulled out a 73-61 win a year ago, Robertson said, "I didn't care where we went. We're so focused on one game at a time, and we want to go as far as we can, no matter who we're with."

Considering Baylor played top-ranked UConn (34-0) as close as anyone this year, Mulkey said, "It might have been better to play them on a neutral floor (in Lincoln, Neb.) than having to go to Notre Dame and having to play them on their home floor."

"But I'm going to tell you now, we can't keep talking about that," she said, "because I've got a young group that's never been to the playoffs. We've got to take care of business in Waco. We've lost some heartbreakers here. . . . Home courts don't guarantee victories, and we've got to remember that when we host these first two games here. We've got to go play."

Here is a link to the 2014 NCAA Women's NCAA Championship Bracket.

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