All the Pieces Fit
When the Lady Bears’ went 33-2 and made the Sweet 16 in 2017-18 for the 10th year in a row, Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey knew she had the pieces in place to make a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps to win it all.
Yes, the departure of seniors Kristy Wallace and Dekeiya Cohen might be a problem, but not an insurmountable one.
Then life happened, making it appear the puzzle and the pieces weren’t from the same box.
Sophomore guard Natalie Chou transferred to UCLA at the end of the 2018 spring semester. Four months later, Alexis Morris, the point guard who was seemingly destined to lead the Lady Bears for the next three years, had to be dismissed from the team.
“I knew we were going to be a very good team. You just never know how good until you start playing, until you see the team chemistry, until you see who’s going to play what roles,” Mulkey says. “I had no clue that I’d have to dismiss a player and have a player who was part of our main rotation transfer out.”
However, the 2018-19 season puzzle did come together. The piece that seemingly made everything else fit was Chloe Jackson, the first graduate transfer in program history. A shooting guard in previous stops at North Carolina State and LSU, Jackson made the difficult transition to point guard look almost seamless.
“That’s like taking a wide receiver and making them a quarterback their fifth year in college,” Mulkey says. “An athlete might run the ball a lot, but you’ve got to have patterns. You’ve got to throw the ball on a dime when they make their cuts. You’ve got to have a presence in the pocket. And she’s having to do all of that stuff.”
Baylor’s “quarterback” hit the game-winning shot on scoop layups in both the NCAA Tournament semifinal game against Oregon and the championship game against Notre Dame. Jackson scored a career-high 26 points against Notre Dame, an 82-81 victory that gave the Lady Bears (37-1) their third national title since 2005 and in Mulkey’s 19 years as Baylor head coach.
“My teammates and my coaches, they believe in me,” Jackson says. “They believe in me so much. LC (Lauren Cox) got us here, and we had to finish the job.”
Cox, a junior forward, went down late in the title game’s third quarter with an MCL sprain and bone bruise on her left knee. She didn’t return, allowing Notre Dame (35-4) to erase a 14-point deficit and take a late lead before Jackson’s go-ahead bucket with 3.9 seconds left on the clock.
“For us to hang on and win after losing such a great player spoke volumes,” Mulkey says. “Not only the talent she has, but she’s our leader.”
That was the key on this national championship team. Whether it was the quarterback, the leader, the All-American, the defensive stopper, the sharpshooter or a bench that included the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, everyone had a role and played it.
The pieces of the puzzle fit perfectly.
Chloe Jackson says it was a “leap of faith” when she left LSU as a grad transfer with one year of eligibility remaining. Not only was she going to her third college, she was taking on the challenge of playing arguably the most critical position on the floor.
“I just had to trust in God that He had a plan for me,” Jackson says. “I knew Baylor already had a great team, and I just hoped that I could be the piece to complete the puzzle. And I feel like I was.”
Initially, she was to split time with Morris while learning the new position and staying in her comfort zone more at shooting guard. But, once Morris was dismissed, it fell on Jackson’s shoulders.
“There’s no way you could have told me that kid was going to have that kind of year,” Mulkey says of Jackson, an All-Big 12 selection who averaged 11.4 points and 5.4 assists per game. “You knew she was going to bring experience to the table. I knew she was an outstanding mid-range jump shooter. You just hold your breath, but you make sure she understands you’re not coming to this team to be a chemistry issue. She changed my entire outlook on taking graduate transfers.”
Jackson was one of the best in the country with a 2.51 assist-to-turnover ratio, and she gave the Lady Bears a much-needed outside shooting threat. After leading LSU with 18.1 points per game as a junior, Jackson was surprised that defenders didn’t respect her range this season.
“I couldn’t have written a better story.”
“I take it as a challenge,” she says. “They don’t respect it, so I’ve got to make them respect it.”
The Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Jackson was drafted by the Chicago Sky in the second round of the WNBA Draft with the 15th overall pick.
“I would say it’s been a dream come true,” she says. “I couldn’t have written a better story.”
It’s hard to ignore the numbers. Lauren Cox led the Big 12 and ranked in the top 20 nationally with 2.6 blocks per game. She also averaged 13.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 52.2 percent from
“Lauren Cox could play any position on the floor,” Mulkey says. “She does all the little things on top of what you obviously see her talent to be. The casual fan can look and see, there’s a 6-5 player that can score, block shots, defend.”
The blocks are probably her biggest calling card, earning Cox Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors the last two seasons. She doesn’t simply block or tip the shot, she stuffs it like a spike in volleyball, oftentimes sending it into the stands.
But what sets Cox apart is her leadership on and off the floor. She made Jackson’s transition to point guard smoother.
“It brought comfort to Chloe,” Mulkey says. “I remember vividly when she was at Texas this year, and they went to an all-out, kamikaze press to get back in the game, and Chloe was not good at handling it. The next practice, it was obvious that Cox was in the middle of the floor, saying, ‘I’m here. I am your relief valve. Use me.’ And Chloe was smart enough to realize ‘I don’t have to break this press by dribbling.’”
Mulkey also relied on Cox’s instincts at critical times. When the coach sent in a play, but the player was convinced another one would work better, Mulkey trusted Cox.
“I was praying we had enough of a lead to hold on,” sophomore wing DiDi Richards says of the moment when Cox sustained her injury in the national championship game.
“That’s how valuable Lauren Cox is to our team on both ends of the floor,” Mulkey says.
Without a doubt, 6-foot-7 senior center Kalani Brown is one of the best players in program history. She is a three-time All-American and the sixth player in school history to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds.
After averaging a double-double (20.1 points, 10.2 rebounds) as a junior, Brown saw her minutes and numbers drop on a better-balanced team. Getting spelled by freshman posts NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo, Brown averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 2018-19.
“Stats are so overrated when people talk about it for All-America teams and all that,” Mulkey says. “Imagine what their stats would have been if I would have left Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox in the game 35-plus minutes all year. But we would not have been a better team, and we wouldn’t have won the national championship.”
Also imagine facing the double- and triple-teams Brown saw every game. There were times when she struggled to maneuver from one side of the paint to the other. Nonetheless, she scored in double figures in all but five games. Brown was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks with the seventh overall selection.
“This feeling is unreal,” Brown says. “I’m still in shock. I’m just happy to be a part of this team right now.”
While Cox was clearly the enforcer in the middle, DiDi Richards developed into the Lady Bears’ shut-down perimeter defender.
In a 68-57 win over then-No. 1 Connecticut, Richards held All-American Katie Lou Samuelson to 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
“That kid defended Samuelson with every ounce of energy she had,” Mulkey says. “DiDi has the length, she’s active, she made Samuelson work for every shot.”
Richards tallied 55 steals and 17 blocks. However, her defense was more than those numbers. She was like that annoying gnat that won’t go away — constantly in your face, never giving an inch of space to breathe.
“Before, I was getting yelled at because Coach (Mulkey) knew I was a better defender than what I was showing,” Richards says. “If I don’t want to get yelled at, I’m going to play defense and make sure the other team’s best player isn’t scoring.”
Richards contributed offensively, as well. When defenses started playing off of her, or completely ignoring her, Richards found ways to score with backdoor cuts and offensive rebounds. She scored a career-high 25 points in the region semifinal win over South Carolina and averaged 14.2 points over the season’s final five games.
“Her first year at Baylor, she was her own worst enemy,” Mulkey says. “She would let my challenging her or her mistakes get to her. I kept telling her, ‘You need to quit showing all that frustration.’ She grew and became more mature.”
Junior guard Juicy Landrum was the only proven 3-point threat coming into the season, knocking down a team-high 44 treys as a sophomore. Landrum shot 39.1 percent (63-of-161) from outside the arc and made more than half of Baylor’s 117 3-pointers.
“Juicy’s a quiet kid by nature, but her game speaks volumes,” Mulkey says. “I tell her all the time, ‘In a lot of ways, Juicy, you should be our leading scorer with all the double- and triple-teams that our posts see. They hit you on the back side, just shoot it.’ She has unbelievable range.”
In the NCAA Tournament second-round win over California, Landrum knocked down four 3-pointers and scored a game-high 20 points.
“If I miss four or five in a row, my teammates always tell me, ‘Don’t worry about it, just keep shooting, the next one will go in,’” Landrum says. “That gave me a ton of confidence.”
Maybe the biggest difference between the 2018-19 team and the six squads since Baylor’s 2012 national title was a deeper bench.
NaLyssa Smith, part of the “Fierce Five” recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 in the country, made the biggest impact. She scored in double figures in 12 of the first 16 games, recorded three double-doubles and averaged 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds on the year. Smith scored eight of her 14 points in the national title game after Cox’s injury.
“When Coach called my name, I just knew it was time to shine,” Smith says. “I just went in there and let everything go.”
Sophomore guard Moon Ursin was another key contributor off the bench, scoring a game-high 20 points in a 74-68 win at Texas. She also helped shut down Oregon All-American Sabrina Ionescu in the fourth quarter of the national semifinal.
Queen Egbo was part of the post rotation with Brown, Cox and Smith, scoring in double digits eight times and averaging 5.4 points and 4.2 rebounds. Freshmen Aquira DeCosta, Honesty Scott-Grayson and Caitlin Bickle and redshirt freshman guard Trinity Oliver played lesser roles on the court but nonetheless contributed.
“We’ve got a lot of unfinished business,” Smith says. “Now, we have a big target on our back, so we have to go in there and work 10 times harder.”
DeCosta, Egbo, Scott-Grayson and Smith were invited to the USA Basketball U19 National Team Trials. Egbo and Smith were selected to the 12-woman roster that will compete in the FIBA U19 World Cup, held July 20-28 in Bangkok, Thailand.