The top seeded Lady Bears are at the top of their game as they prepare to face No. 5 seed Green Bay in a Sweet Sixteen matchup this weekend.
Hosting Rounds one and two of the tournament in Waco, the Lady Bears easily rolled over Prairie View A&M last Sunday and expertly handled a feisty West Virginia team on Tuesday.
"Don't ever take a Sweet Sixteen for granted," Head Coach Kim Mulkey said. "Some coaches coach a lifetime and never make it to a Sweet Sixteen. Some players play and don't ever get there."
For the Lady Bears, "getting there" included clinching both the Big 12 Conference regular season and Big 12 Tournament championships, going 15-1 in conference play and earning a conference record five individual awards, including Coach of the Year and Player of the Year (Brittney Griner).
The Lady Bears, who are 33-2 overall, have proven their mettle all season long. After a disappointing one-point loss to basketball powerhouse UConn in November, they rallied one month later to defeat rival Tennessee in front of a sell-out Baylor crowd (the largest ever to attend a men's or women's basketball game).
Strong preseason play put Baylor at the top of national rankings, where they remained for the majority of the season.
Though they displayed impressive talent and depth early in the season, securing a first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament was no easy endeavor.
Early on, changes to the line-up put true freshman Odyssey Sims at the
all-important point guard position. Yet she quickly established herself as a capable force on both ends of the court, earning Big 12 Freshman of the Week honors five times during the regular season.
"We are young, but that is not an excuse when games are on the line," Sims said. "We are not considered freshmen, sophomores or seniors out there. Everybody is just considered a basketball player."
Perhaps the biggest test of the team's fortitude came in the final stretch of the regular season in a close match against the University of Oklahoma.
Senior team-captain Melissa Jones, suffered a serious blow to the head while diving for a loose ball. As a result, Jones temporarily lost vision in her right eye due to a swollen optic nerve.
Whitney Zachariason, a senior guard, started in place of Jones on Senior Night at the Ferrell Center--the victory that clinched the Big 12 regular season championship.
"We really wanted to win this for Melissa," Zachariason said. "She brings so much excitement to this team. You heard the crowd when she walked in; it was unbelievable."
Amazingly, Jones was back on the court by the next game, playing with limited vision, a pair of sunglasses and her signature enthusiasm and leadership.
"She's an amazing person," Mulkey said of Jones. "She's just a warrior. She is everything coaches dream to coach. She has taught me so many lessons about life, as she is right now."
Despite a few set-backs, the Bears are no underdog. That is largely due to the formidable presence of one Britney Griner. The Naismith Trophy finalist and All-America candidate is the focal-point of every opposing coach and player, who must alter their game plan to adjust to the 6'8 center.
"She really defensively changes the whole game," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Every time you drive in there, no matter who is guarding you, she's going to be at the rim to block a shot."
With significant attention on Griner, the performance of sophomores Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams has given Baylor an offensive spark or defensive stop when the team needs it most.
Similarly, guards Kimetria (Nae-Nae) Hayden, Jordan Madden and Terran Condrey have made big plays to secure big wins throughout the thrilling season.
For all the impressive stats, skills and accolades, it is the spirit and camaraderie of this squad that impresses most. It makes them a dominant force on the court and an inspiration to all who wonder what it means to be a Lady Bear.