Focus just fine as Bears roll

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Kim Mulkey didn’t like the way her Baylor team started the game. Trailing by just one barely two minutes into the game, she called for a timeout.

She wanted her team, and specifically freshman guard Imani Wright, to calm down.

“I felt like at that time I could get on them and challenge them,” Mulkey said, “and let them know that they need to play as fired up as I was coaching.”

Consider the fire lit.

Baylor responded with a 16-2 run and never trailed again in a 90-72 NCAA tournament victory over Kentucky. The win pushed second-seeded Bears (32-4) into a regional championship matchup Monday with No. 1 seed Notre Dame (35-0).

During the run, Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell chose to let the Wildcats (26-9) play through their mistakes. By the time he had seen enough and called for a timeout, Kentucky trailed 20-7 with 11:40 left in the first half.

“I thought it was mistakes that we were making, and we were trying to get the pace of the game at a certain level,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t feel like it was out of reach at those times. Not much that I did (Saturday) was right, so that probably could have helped if I had done something different there.”

Those mistakes included three consecutive possessions ending with missed lay-ups and allowing Baylor eight offensive rebounds in the first half.

“It’s hard to figure out exactly why you would come out in this kind of game and struggle to make easy shots,” Mitchell said. “It seemed like the ball was bouncing their way. We would do a good job and the ball would be right there for us to get it, but it would kick into the Baylor players’ hands and they would lay it up.”

Kentucky scratched back into the game following Mitchell’s timeout, but Baylor finished the first half strong. A pair of free throws from UK’s Jennifer O’Neill with 4:43 left in the half cut the deficit to 32-28. Baylor slammed the window shut with a 17-4 run to close the half.

The Bears played the final 1:37 of the first half without leading scorer Odyssey Sims, but showed little worry. Seconds after Sims left the game with three fouls, senior guard Makenzie Robertson nailed a 3-pointer to suck the life out of Kentucky before ending the half with a 49-32 lead.

Baylor’s effort in keeping the up-tempo Kentucky offense off rhythm dictated control in the first half. The Wildcats helped out by shooting just 25 percent on 36 shot attempts to open the game.

“We learned from the first time that we played them that they were going to attack, so we tried our best to defend dribble penetration and keep them in front,” Sims said in reference to the 133-130 loss to Kentucky in four overtimes back in December. “Rebounding was key. We thought they were going to come out strong in the second half with their perimeter shooting, but we just have to give credit to our defense.”

Instead of benching Sims to start the second half, Mulkey showed her trust by keeping her star in the game. Sims scored 18 points in 18 minutes in the first half, and Mulkey didn’t want to keep that threat on the bench.

“When I walked in to visit with them before the second half started, I looked at Odyssey and I said ‘Don’t pick up your fourth in the first 10 minutes. You’re an All-American. Figure it out.’’ Mulkey said. “If she had picked up her fourth, I’m not sure it would have changed the flow of the game because she only attempted seven shots the second half. But, no, you don’t do that to a player that’s that good. I had all the trust and confidence that she would be all right.”

The Bears kept cruising in the second half and extended the lead to as many as 20 points with 8:16 remaining. Sims added seven more points for her game-high 25 and didn’t record another foul.

The majority of the help for Baylor came in the form of two freshmen: starting forward Nina Davis and reserve center Khadijiah Cave. Davis scored 10 points in each half and grabbed eight rebounds. Cave scored a career-high 18 points to go along with her nine rebounds. Combined with a double-double for sophomore guard Niya Johnson (11 points, 11 assists), the Bears found a balanced attack to carry the load.

“When a coach has confidence in players, you just tend to forget they’re freshmen and they haven’t been in this situation,” Mulkey said. “That’s basically how I can coach them now.”

Kentucky’s DeNesha Stallworth finished with 19 points in her final game. Linea Harper scored 14 points off the bench and Bria Goss added 13. Jennifer O’Neill, Kentucky’s leading scorer this season, scored just eight points from the free throw line with a 0-for-12 effort from the field.

“We just didn’t play together as a team today, and as a leader, I should have been able to pull the team together through adversity,” Goss said. “We just didn’t have it today.”

KENTUCKY (26-9): Janee Thompson 1-5 0-2 2, Denesha Stallworth 9-14 0-0 19, Bria Goss 2-8 9-10 13, Samarie Walker 1-5 1-2 3, Kastine Evans 1-5 2-2 4, Jennifer O’Neill 0-12 8-8 8, Bernisha Pinkett 0-0 0-0 0, Jelleah Sidney 0-3 0-0 0, Linnae Harper 6-10 0-0 14, Makayla Epps 3-4 1-2 7, Azia Bishop 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 24-69 21-26 72. BAYLOR (32-4): Odyssey Sims 11-23 2-3 25, Niya Johnson 3-6 5-6 11, Nina Davis 6-13 8-10 20, Makenzie Robertson 3-7 0-0 9, Sune Agbuke 1-3 0-0 2, Chardonae Fuqua 1-1 0-0 2, Mariah Chandler 0-0 0-0 0, Imani Wright 0-0 0-0 0, Leshia Small 0-2 3-4 3, Kristina Higgins 0-1 0-0 0, Khadijiah Cave 7-11 4-4 18. Totals 32-67 22-27 90. Halftime — Baylor 49-32. 3-Point Goals — Kentucky 3-12 (Harper 2-2, Stallworth 1-1, Evans 0-4, O’Neill 0-5), Baylor 4-10 (Robertson 3-6, Sims 1-4). Fouled Out — Goss. Rebounds — Kentucky 39 (Stallworth 8), Baylor 47 (Cave 9). Assists — Kentucky 10 (O’Neill 4), Baylor 23 (Johnson 11). Total Fouls — Kentucky 25, Baylor 17. A — NA.

Baylor's Nina Davis, left, and Odyssey Sims stretch during practice at Purcell Pavilion on Friday. (AP Photo/PAUL SANCYA)