By Stephen Hawkins
The Associated Press
WACO, Texas — Baylor coach Kim Mulkey struggles at times because her top-ranked Lady Bears are showing they can be better even without being perfect again.
“I’ve got to make sure that they don’t get complacent. I’ve got to make sure that they keep working,” said Mulkey, who has to balance between overdoing it and not doing enough. “I marvel sometimes at what they’re doing out there that looks effortless.”
Led by two-time All-American Brittney Griner and four other seniors, the defending national champion Lady Bears (14-1, 4-0 Big 12) are winning their games by an average margin of nearly 31 points, even after facing ranked teams their last three conference games. They are the nation’s top shooting team making half of their shots along with the best assist-to-turnover ratio.
And this comes after going undefeated last year in the NCAA’s first 40-win season.
“I sit in my bed at night trying to think of things to motivate them and to keep them humble,” Mulkey said. “I think the main thing is the personality of our team is, ‘Coach, we’re going back to work. We know we’re good. We know we’re the defending champs. We’re not defending anything, we’re just trying to win another one.”’
Baylor has won 12 in a row since a 71-69 loss to Stanford in Hawaii a week into this season. Odyssey Sims, their preseason All-American point guard played only 4 minutes in that NCAA semifinal rematch before she strained a hamstring. The junior missed four more games after that.
Before Big 12 play, Baylor scored the first 17 points against Tennessee and led 46-19 at halftime against Kentucky, another top 10 team. The Lady Bears also are responsible for second-ranked Notre Dame’s only loss, winning at South Bend in a rematch of last year’s national title game.
“They are better, which is how can you be better when you were perfect,” said Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly, whose team lost 67-39 at Baylor last week and still moved up a spot in the new Top 25 poll Monday. “Who they’ve beaten and what they’ve done, they’re the best team in the country, no doubt about it. It’s going to take something special for anyone to beat them.”
The Lady Bears have won 48 consecutive home games, the longest active streak. Stanford’s 82-game home streak was snapped last month by Connecticut, which a week after that lost at home to Notre Dame and cleared the way for Baylor to be No. 1 again.
Baylor has won 26 consecutive conference games, a Big 12 record that goes to 32 if including their last two conference tournament titles. Stanford won 81 in a row against conference teams before another home loss, to California on Sunday.
Griner is the Big 12’s leading scorer at 21 points a game, but the 6-foot-8 post player is unusually seventh with 7.7 rebounds a game.
Of course, that could be attributed to Griner playing only 27 1/2 minutes a game, five minutes below her average her first three seasons. Plus, the Lady Bears are making so many of their shots (480 of 953).
“Everybody’s scoring and everybody’s contributing,” Griner said.
“I know that I’ve never coached a team at Baylor that’s led the country in field goal percentage on the offensive end,” Mulkey said. “We always take pride in the defense. I don’t know that I’ve ever had this many players with assist-to-turnover ratios that are ranked in the top 25 in the country.”
Kimetria Hayden has 63 assists and 21 turnovers to rank second among Division I players with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, while Jordan Madden (2.5-to-1) is 11th and freshman Niya Johnson (2.14-to-1) is 26th. Baylor (1.62-to-1 as a team) is the only team to have multiple players ranked that high.
With five of her top players in the closing stretch of their college careers, Mulkey takes advantage of lopsided games with playing time for a talented group of four freshmen who will have to step up next season.
“I hope that we can continue to have that, because what that does is allows the freshmen to get on the floor and those kids that are role players to get valuable minutes,” Mulkey said. “It just makes them better in a game setting.”
Mulkey is also getting help from Griner and the veteran players in growing up the young players.
“This team, sometimes I just feel like I need to sit down,” Mulkey said before referencing a recent pregame shootaround. “They’ve been through it so many times, they just led themselves. I just stood on the sideline. They knew what to do;, hey knew what I was going to say next. They knew to keep teaching the freshmen, they knew to run this at the end of the controlled break.”
With a round-robin schedule of home-and-home games, Big 12 teams play 18 conference games during the regular season. Fennelly suggests that everybody else is playing 16 games outside two likely losses to Baylor.
The Cyclones next week host Baylor, which will finish that regular-season series even before the Lady Bears face three Big 12 teams. And that may not be fast enough for the Iowa State coach.
“I’ve been this league so long ... I asked them, I’d play (Baylor) twice the first two games,” Fennelly said. “Let’s get it over with.”
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