Baylor coach looks ahead
SOUTH BEND — Don’t ask Kim Mulkey to dissect Baylor’s December loss to Kentucky.
Even assuming that she relived the four-overtime brawl inside the Dallas Cowboys’ home at AT&T Stadium on film would be a misstep.
“Who wants to look at a loss?” said Baylor’s head coach, whose team again faces Kentucky Saturday at noon at Purcell Pavilion in NCAA regional semifinal action. “My recollection is that it was horrible weather, very few Baylor fans were there because of the sleet and snow, I never thought the game would end and I was concerned I wouldn’t have enough players to even finish the game.”
By the end of the 133-130 loss to Kentucky, Mulkey barely had any players left to put on the court. Seven Bears fouled out before the final buzzer, including star guard Odyssey Sims, who scored a game-high 47 points before leaving in the first overtime.
The game, the highest scoring one in Division I women’s basketball history, lasted three hours and twenty min-utes. In a battle of stamina and depth, Kentucky pulled through with the help of 62 bench points, 43 of those com-ing from reserve guard Jennifer O’Neill.
The scouting report on Kentucky hasn’t changed much since December. The Wildcats have sharpened their play and utilized a zone defense more frequently, but Mulkey expects to see a similar game on Saturday with Ken-tucky’s up-tempo offense — if not for all the fouls and overtime sessions.
“Nothing has changed other than their zone defense,” Mulkey said. “They probably want to stay on the floor and not have four players foul out, and we sure don’t want to have seven players foul out. Hopefully all of the parts can remain on the floor and it will be another good game.”
There’s no doubt surrounding Kentucky’s biggest challenge: slowing down Sims.
Few have managed to do so, and the Wildcats can’t claim any expertise after her outburst in the previous matchup. Trying to keep Sims somewhere near average, which equates to 28.5 points per game (second best in the country), might be the best head coach Matthew Mitchell can hope for.
“We can’t let them get out and score easy baskets in transition,” Mitchell said. “They run the floor and have ex-plosive guards who can make plays in transition. We have to find some way to have Odyssey play an average game.”
Last time, the Wildcats ran four different defenders at her. Another team defensive approach will be required.
“We need to try our very best to switch it up and try to break her rhythm,” Mitchell said. “She does a great job fig-uring out what you are going to do and attacking the defense. She was so hot that night that it didn’t matter what we tried to do. We have to do a really good job on her.”
Sims likely won’t be shaken by the different looks. Baylor has seen a number of defensive schemes — box-and-ones, triangle-and-twos, traps, double teams — all season long. Kentucky must hope for execution, rather than con-fusion, to get the job done.
“She is so physical and used to having people try to deny her,” Mitchell said. “We just have to stay patient be-cause she’s just going to make you look bad some times. The whole team just has to do a good job trying to slow her down.”
In order to replenish from last season’s loss of five seniors, including all-everything Brittney Griner, Baylor needed youth to fill some of the voids.
As the season progressed, a quartet of freshmen stepped up to play big minutes for the Bears. Forward Nina Davis stepped into the starting lineup to lead the team in rebounds (8.9 per game) and score 15.1 points per game.
Coming off the bench, guards Imani Wright and Ieshia Small and post-player Khadijiah Cave have provided needed depth. Together the foursome, each of whom has played in all 35 games, combined for an average of 29 points.
“We play eight or nine players and they’re just so much better,” Mulkey said. “They score, they defend better and they’re confident. I’m sure when we played Kentucky the first time they were nervous, as they should be, but they are just better basketball players today than when we played Kentucky the first time.”
Sharing the stage with the goliath of Kentucky men’s basketball has treated the Wildcat women well in recent years. The support in Lexington has grown with the success of the women’s program.
“It’s a great town where people really care about these kids and root for them in a really neat way that I think’s pretty unique anywhere,” said Mitchell, whose team hosted games in the opening two rounds. “We had a packed building and the tickets weren’t real cheap. Saturday and Monday we had great crowds and people lining up out-side the building before the game. We just have tremendous support.”
The reported attendance for Monday’s win over Syracuse in Memorial Coliseum was 4,661. Thousands of Big Blue fans migrated north for the men’s regional game in Indianapolis against Louisville on Friday night. Mitchell was hoping for some of those fans to keep heading north to South Bend for Saturday’s game.
“The men’s basketball situation is really nuts,” Mitchell said. “The whole state just kind of comes together. It’s on the radio or on TV and everybody — it’s almost like a religious experience. We’re all worshipping the same church for those two hours.”
TJames1@SBTinfo.com ¦ 574-235-6214 ¦ Twitter: @TJamesNDI