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No. 16 Lady Bears hungry for NCAAs

Jan. 30, 2004

By Erica DeLeon, reporter

The No. 16 Baylor women's basketball team knows how it feels to fall short of a team goal. Last season the Bears were one spot shy of playing in the NCAA tournament. Instead they played in the WNIT where they advanced to the championship game against Auburn University. Baylor was runner-up in the tournament, losing by one point.

'Our ultimate goal is to go to the NCAA tournament,' senior guard Jessika Stratton said. 'Last year we just missed that mark and we went to the WNIT. It was a great experience for us but we know that NCAA tournament is ultimately where we want to be at the end of the year.'

However, the Bears will have to step up their play after losing sophomore guard Ebony Jackson. Jackson was dismissed from the team after repeated violations of team policy. She started in 15 games out of the 20 played this season. As a freshman Jackson earned the team's most improved player award and set a new Baylor record for most assists by a freshman with 116.

Last season the Bears only had one senior on the team and not much experience. The experience gained last year has helped the team.

'We played in a top tournament - played for a championship - and I think that really prepared us a little bit better for this season,' Stratton said. 'Our girls are playing really well right now and I think ... experience is [the reason why].'

Baylor has an overall record of 16-4 and is 4-3 in Big 12 conference action. All of the team's losses have been to top 14 ranked teams. Stratton said she believes the season started long before the Bears even touched a basketball.

'The preseason work that we have put in the weight room and running has definitely paid off because we're in great shape right now,' Stratton said.

The Bear's preseason schedule showcased talented basketball teams such as Pennsylvania State University and North Carolina State University.

'Our preseason schedule was very tough,' Stratton said. 'It definitely prepared us to play some pretty tough opponents on the road and at home.'

Baylor only lost one game in preseason play and throughout Big 12 conference play the Bears have climbed from a No. 25 ranking to their current rank at No. 16.

'Poll rankings are important, but more important than rankings is postseason play,' head Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said. 'There are a lot of teams that make the NCAA tournament that are never ranked, so we welcome the rankings but we don't dwell on it. ... The rankings bring recognition across the nation and it helps in recruiting, but it doesn't give you a postseason birth and that's what we ultimately want to do.'

Leadership is an integral part of the team. Stratton, junior post Steffanie Blackmon and sophomore forward Sophia Young are the captains of the squad and combined hold countless school and conference records. Each has had consecutive double-digit nights.

'Those guys are doing a good job,' Mulkey said.

Baylor has knocked off then No. 3 University of Texas and then No. 15 University of Oklahoma and lost by one to then No. 2 Texas Tech University. With each win the team's confidence grows, Mulkey said.

'I don't think we've necessarily had one big accomplishment,' Stratton said. 'I think there have been a lot of little things along the way that have paved the way. There are little things along the way that we do, whether in games or in practice, that are accomplishments for us.'

Staying close with Pennsylvania State University on the road and beating Texas was big for the Lady Bears, but they hope they can add NCAA tournament to the list.

Accomplishments have been achieved through teamwork, and teamwork has endured the team's season of injuries. Baylor is coming off an 85-65 loss to No. 12 Kansas State University and will face No. 25 University of Nebraska at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Ferrell Special Events Center. H-E-B will provide food and drink at the game.