SOOO SWEEET!: Lady Bears Pull Away Late for 75-56 Win Over CalMarch 25, 2014
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Like schoolgirls on the playground at recess, Baylor seniors Odyssey Sims, Makenzie Robertson and Mariah Chandler held hands and skipped around the Ferrell Center court for the last time. This was the victory lap they had planned to have three weeks ago.
Similar to that painful 71-69 loss to West Virginia in the regular-season finale, the second-seeded Lady Bears were tested early and often by a seventh-seeded California team that made it to last year's Final Four. Through the first 30 minutes, it couldn't have been much tighter than this.
But when push came to shove, Sims scored 11 of her game-high 27 points in a 13-2 run, punctuated by an NBA-range 3-pointer, as Baylor pulled away late for a 75-56 win over Cal in Monday's second-round NCAA tournament game at the Ferrell Center.
Despite losing two-time National Player of the Year Brittney Griner and four other seniors, the Lady Bears (31-4) are back in the Sweet 16 for the sixth consecutive year. In the rematch of a 133-130 four-overtime loss back in December, Baylor will face third-seeded Kentucky (26-8) at 11 a.m. Saturday at the regional in South Bend, Ind.
"As my mother from the country would say, 'Who'da thunk it?''' said Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, who served a one-game suspension when the Lady Bears opened with an 87-74 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday.
"We're, by no means, patting ourselves on the back and saying, 'Gosh, we did good this year.' . . . You're looking at a basketball team that played without their coach yesterday, and did a tremendous job. And you're looking at a basketball team that played a team that was in the Final Four a year ago, and did a tremendous job. We're not even going to look at those films. We're going to pull out every Kentucky film we can find and prepare for Kentucky."
Shaking off some early shooting woes that saw her hit just five of her first 20 attempts, Sims finished with 27 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals.
"It was typical Odyssey, making big plays and big shots when the game was on the line," Mulkey said of her senior All-American. "Great players do that."
Sims and Robertson, who came in together four years ago, finished 77-2 on their home floor. Their only losses came this season, falling to top-ranked Connecticut, 66-55, on Jan. 13 and then that heartbreaking loss to West Virginia that kept them from celebrating an outright Big 12 championship on Senior Night.
"We got a chance to redeem ourselves one last time, and they did an outstanding job supporting us when we were walking around the court," Sims said.
As first Robertson, then Sims and finally Chandler left the floor, they were each greeted with endearing hugs from their coach - and in Robertson's case, her mom.
"Throughout the game, we obviously weren't thinking about that," said Robertson, who hit a clutch 3-pointer in the second half and finished with seven points, three rebounds, three steals and two assists. "But as soon as it's over, it's always a great feeling to leave your home court with a win. We didn't get to thank our fans on Senior Night because of how it ended, so this was our chance to do that."
It was mutual. The Lady Bear faithful gave the seniors a standing ovation as they did their victory-lap skip.
Mulkey teared up a little as she hug her daughter long and hard, but said it "certainly would have been a lot more emotional had we lost, because that would have been her last game ever."
"It's emotional to the extent that those three seniors only lost two basketball games on this floor in four years. Those are ridiculous numbers," she said. "Those seniors have led a very young basketball team to the Sweet 16 again. . . . The emotional part of it is those three seniors deserved a standing ovation, and I wanted to get them off the floor so people could acknowledge them."
Sims had already left the floor once before, picking up her second foul with 8:10 left in the first half and the Lady Bears trailing, 21-20. Freshman forward Nina Davis joined her on the bench 37 seconds later when she was whistled for her second foul, leaving Baylor without its top two scores for the last 7 ½ minutes.
"For a split second, Odyssey wanted to convince me not to take her out," Mulkey said. "Sometimes, you just go with your gut. The flow of the game in that moment, I just thought, 'We're going to be OK.' . . . If the game had gotten out of hand, or I felt like we were losing momentum, I would have put her right back in. In fact, I told her when she was on the bench, be ready to go back in. I'm not afraid to play you guys tonight if I need to, but we didn't need to. And that's the sign of a team that's grown and a team that's improved when you can play freshmen like that in a big game."
Instead of losing momentum, the Lady Bears picked it up. Freshman forward Khadijah Cave scored six of her 10 points in a 9-4 run that helped Baylor take its largest lead of the half, 29-25. Cal regained the lead and the momentum, but freshman Imani Wright drained a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left to give the Lady Bears a 34-33 lead at the half.
"We jogged off that floor at halftime with a one-point lead, and I thought, 'We're OK,''' Mulkey said. "We had freshmen out there playing a team that made it to the Final Four last year. That's not the same team that made it to the Final Four, but there were a lot of players on that floor that were on that team. I just thought we got through the first half, and we're going to be all right when we get Nina and Odyssey back out there."
Baylor looked like it would finally pull away when Robertson canned a 3-pointer from the corner that gave her team a six-point lead, 44-38 at the 15:29 mark. But the Golden Bears (22-10) answered with six straight points and tied it on a Brittany Boyd jumper.
Midway through the second half, Cal trailed by just three and had the ball. But that's when things changed in a hurry.
Davis picked off a pass from Gennifer Brandon and outletted to Sims for a breakaway layup on the other end. Another Cal turnover led to a sweet floater by Sims that pushed the lead to 57-50.
Boyd slowed the tide, at least momentarily, with a driving layup. But Sims rocketed a pass to a wide-open Robertson for a layup on the back side, hit another floater and then a pair of free throws to get the lead to double digits, 63-62.
And then she put the dagger in with that NBA-range 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, giving Baylor a 66-52 lead with 4:31 left in the game.
"She pretty much knows what we want to do in that situation," Mulkey said of Sims. "She let it fly before we could do what we normally do. When it goes in, it's one of those shots where it's 'What is she (doing)? . . . That's a great shot.'''
Sims, who flashed the 3-goggles after the shot, said she didn't know how far out she was on her only made 3-pointer of the night.
"(Boyd) was trying to get me to go into the screen, and I didn't want to turn the ball over, so I shot it and made it," Sims said. "I guess you could say that was the dagger, but we were just building the lead quietly, and we stayed after it and made free throws."
With the lead up to 17 late in the game, Mulkey was able to take each of the seniors out and give them their due.
After a career-high 32 in Saturday's win over Western Kentucky, Davis followed that up with 13 points, six rebounds and two steals against Cal. Sophomore point guard Niya Johnson continued to extend her single-season assists record with 11 more on Monday, while Wright hit three 3-pointers and Cave chipped in with 10 points, five boards and two blocks.
"I thought KK (Cave) was unbelievable," Mulkey said. "When you look at the athletes that were on the floor in that paint, KK might be the only post player that could jump and leap and alter shots with their athletes in the paint. She certainly scored on them. I was really proud of KK tonight."
The Lady Bears get a chance for a "do-over" after that memorable four-overtime loss to Kentucky in a Dec. 6 game at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
After matching last year's Sweet 16 appearance, Mulkey said everything after this is "absolutely icing."
"But we're, by no means, patting ourselves on the back and saying, 'Gosh, we did good this year.' You're trying to win the next game, you're trying to compete. You're in there looking at scouting reports, looking at film, and preparing."
Top-seeded and second-ranked Notre Dame (34-0) plays fifth-seeded Oklahoma State (25-8) in the other region semifinal at 1 p.m. CDT Saturday, with the winners meeting on Monday for a spot in the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn.
Here is a link to the boxscore from Monday's Baylor-California women's basketball game.
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