Lady Bears Continue Big 12 Dominance
There are now three great certainties in life: death, taxes and Baylor Women’s Basketball winning the Big 12 Conference. The Lady Bears claimed their 11th consecutive regular-season Big 12 title this year, extending their dominance over the league. It is the program’s 12th regular-season championship under head coach Kim Mulkey, a 2020 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.
Baylor’s run of conference titles is the nation’s longest active streak and tied for the fifth longest in NCAA women’s basketball history. The Lady Bears have won the Big 12 regular-season title for nearly half of the league’s 25-year history. Add Baylor’s 10 conference tournament titles entering this season, and the program’s control of the Big 12 is one of the most complete runs of success in any conference ever.
This year’s title came amidst unprecedented circumstances for all of college athletics. Disruptions due to COVID-19 led to attendance restrictions at the Ferrell Center with schedule alterations during a generational winter storm. The Lady Bears also had to overcome a preseason injury to reigning Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year Didi Richards, who returned to the court in early December.
“It’s emotional, particularly this year with everything we’ve been through,” Mulkey said. “It’s different not having fans on the floor [celebrating] with us. Usually, that floor in years past has been packed, and it takes us hours to get away.”
“When you step back and think about what we’ve done in 21 years here, coaches are not [typically] blessed to have that many great players come through a program.”
Mulkey, who was named Big 12 Coach of the Year for the fourth consecutive season and ninth overall, has built Baylor into one of the nation’s elite programs. Only the University of Connecticut (11) and the University of Tennessee (8) claim more national titles than Baylor’s three, all of which have come since 2005. Connecticut is the only other program with multiple titles in that timespan. Mulkey’s career winning percentage is third in NCAA history behind only Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and Louisiana Tech’s Leon Barmore — Mulkey’s mentor.
Baylor has finished ninth or better in the final national rankings every year since 2009, and the Lady Bears were last unranked at season’s end in 2003 when Baylor was runner-up in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. That was the last time the Lady Bears did not play in the NCAA Tournament, the nation’s sixth-longest active streak entering this season behind only Tennessee (38), Stanford University (32), Connecticut (31), the University of Notre Dame (24) and DePaul University (17).
“When you step back and think about what we’ve done in 21 years here, coaches are not [typically] blessed to have that many great players come through a program,” Mulkey said.
Baylor has certainly been blessed. Entering this season, seven Lady Bears have earned first-team All-America honors in Mulkey’s tenure. Two — Brittney Griner (2012, 2013) and Odyssey Sims (2014) — claimed national player of the year awards. Numerous others have been named second-team, third-team or honorable mention All-America in that time, while others have been national player of the year finalists.
This year is no different as Richards and junior guard NaLyssa Smith were leading candidates for national player of the year honors. Richards was also a leading candidate for national defensive player of the year honors, and junior Queen Egbo was a finalist for the Leslie Award, recognizing the nation’s top center.