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Lady Bears scraping by without Jones

Jan. 20, 2010

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Sarah Groman | Lariat staff
Melissa Jones (No. 5) drives the to the basket Nov. 17 against Tennessee Tech University. Jones leads the Lady Bears in 3-point shooting. However, Jones has missed the last three games because of a stress fracture.

By Chris Derrett
Sports writer

Looking at the Lady Bears' Big 12 record, onlookers have been surprised to see the team predicted to win the conference with two scratches in the loss column in its first three games.

But seasoned coach Kim Mulkey knows that given the circumstances, the losses are not a step backward; in fact her young team has barely learned how to walk in a league full of grown up, experienced talent. Losing your equivalent of a field general does not help, either.

"We need that experience from our returners to take effect for the freshman to learn early, and I think we'll be all right," junior guard Melissa Jones said at the beginning of the season.

Besides being the only team in the Big 12 with only one returning starter, the team was dealt another blow beyond its control when Jones discovered a stress reactor that kept her sidelined for her team's first three conference games.

Jones' leadership by example is evidenced by both her willingness to hit the floor to make plays as well as the team-high 31 steals she collected in non-conference play.

Fundamentally she also plays a key role in the inside-outside attack Baylor can throw at opponents.

Teams must chose to devote attention to Brittney Griner and yield open perimeter shots, or guard the perimeter and take their chances with the 6-foot-8 freshman.

To put Jones' importance in perspective, she hit 21 of 48 three-point attempts during the non-conference schedule. The next closest player, freshman Kimetria Hayden, made six of 19.

"I hope you don't think this was unexpected," Mulkey said after a 65-56 home loss to No. 9 ranked Nebraska. "Without Melissa Jones, and as many freshman and sophomores as we have, look at the league: there are juniors and seniors in this league."

The juniors and seniors on Nebraska's team showed the Lady Bears what experience does when mixed with talent. With the game tied at 45, the Cornhuskers outscored Baylor 20-9 to end the game using perfectly executed plays that created eight three-point attempts, four of which they sank.

Nebraska nailed 11 of its last 23 three-point attempts while the Lady Bears went 0-10.

During the 20-9 run Mulkey's team went 4 of 15, missing open shots and lacking any offensive rhythm. They could not find an answer to the constant double and triple teams on Griner, and players were confused about trying to get the ball inside versus taking open shots.

"They all have the green light (to shoot)," Mulkey said. "What's happening to them is they're hearing coach say, 'Throw it inside to Griner,' and there's no spacing. It's a youth and experience thing, and that just comes with uncertainty, inexperience, and immaturity."

Mulkey later commented that even calling plays is difficult with a young team, as players tend to miss assignments when faced with Big 12 caliber opposition.

With Jones' void, the younger players have found other avenues to overcome offensive execution struggles. Aggression and defense have kept the Lady Bears competitive in this stretch of unfortunate injury.

Players like freshman Shanay Washington can give the team a spark with momentum swinging hustle plays. She was only 4 of 11 from the field against Oklahoma, but twice she turned steals into fast break points, scoring on one and drawing a foul for a three-point play.

"I knew in this game that I couldn't be timid because I needed to get to the basket. I have been doing that all week in practice after Oklahoma State. I needed to get to the paint and not be scared of contact," Washington said after the game.

Washington is the only player to record at least one steal in each of Baylor's first three conference games.

Of course Griner, never shying from contact, also anchored the defensive effort in that game with 11 blocks.

Each game this season is just another step. At some point in the coming years, Mulkey says, she will be on the side with a smoothly running offense and a mature group of winners. The young will become leaders; the team will have leaders from top to bottom.

"The effort is there," Mulkey said. "We'll keep helping them; we'll keep working with them. We will remain positive. We are very, very talented, and it's going to happen."