Title defenders: No. 2 Baylor women on roll into Big 12 play
WACO, Texas (AP) — Baylor coach Kim Mulkey will point out that the only loss for the second-ranked Lady Bears — to current No. 1 South Carolina, at the end of November — was a game they played without standout senior post Lauren Cox.
The preseason AP All-American is healthy now, and so are the defending national champions with another graduate transfer having a big impact and some sophomores stepping up in expanded roles.
“I think we’re playing some of our best basketball right now, and I think that there’s still room for us to improve,” said Cox, who has played in only four games since missing eight others because of a right foot issue. “That’s pretty scary on our end, because I think we still have a lot of potential. And I think right now we’re playing really well together.”
The Lady Bears (13-1, 2-0 Big 12) can match their record of 44 consecutive Big 12 regular-season wins Wednesday night at Kansas. They have the nation’s longest home winning streak at 47 games, after a 94-48 win Sunday over Oklahoma State that came only three days after they won 74-58 to end then-No. 1 UConn’s run of 98 in a row at home. It was the largest home loss by the Huskies in more than 14 years.
“All that matters to us at this moment is to win as many games in this conference as we can to get 10 (championships) in a row,” said Mulkey, who is in her 20th season. “That’s a lot of championships, and that’s our goal. ... There’s just so much basketball left.”
Baylor has won the last nine Big 12 regular-season titles, eight of the league’s last nine tournament championships and gotten to at least the NCAA Sweet 16 the past 11 seasons.
Like Chloe Jackson last season when she was the NCAA Final Four’s most outstanding player, Te’a Cooper chose Baylor as a graduate transfer from an SEC school to close out her college career while switching to point guard. The former South Carolina shooting guard is averaging 15.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.
“She’s scoring when we need her to score. She’s making great passes when we need that from her,” Cox said. “So she’s really come into her role.”
Juicy Landrum and defensive specialist DiDi Richards joined Cox (13.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg) as returning starters from Baylor’s third national championship team under Mulkey. Jackson and three-year All-Big 12 center Kalani Brown are now playing professionally.
NaLyssa Smith, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who started only once last season, is now Baylor’s leading scorer (16.9 points per game) and rebounder (8.1 rpg). After a double-double at UConn, she had career highs of 30 points and 15 rebounds against Oklahoma State.
Queen Egbo, a 6-3 sophomore, started six of the eight games Cox missed and is averaging 12 points and 7.8 rebounds. She had 15 rebounds against the Cowgirls.
“It’s obvious to me that they’ve probably got the best club in the country,” Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said. “Their length bothers you, they speed you up. ... Even when you’re open, you’re rushing shots.”
Five Baylor players average double-figure scoring, and three of them have at least 7.8 rebounds a game. The Lady Bears lead the nation with 87.4 points and 23.5 assists per game, while shooting a national-best 51.5% from the field and holding opponents to a national-low 29.6%.
Cox had double-doubles in each of Baylor’s first two games, the last on Nov. 8 before an MRI showed a stress reaction in her right foot.
During her more than seven weeks rehabbing, she missed the 74-59 loss to South Carolina in the title game of a tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
After Cox played all 40 minutes at UConn — “The day after after, I wasn’t as sore and as exhausted as I thought I would be, so I guess that’s a good sign,” she said — the post player was 6-of-8 shooting against Oklahoma State (14 points, 10 rebounds).
“The more she plays, the more she’ll be back to herself,” Mulkey said.
And that will make the defending champions even better.