As the confetti poured down at the Amalie Arena in April, the Baylor women’s basketball program shed tears of joy, having defeated Notre Dame, 82-81, to win the 2019 NCAA National Championship.
A lot has happened since the thrilling NCAA Tournament Final in Tampa, Fla., but Baylor is still ranked No. 2 in the nation. Can they remain there after this weekend as they compete in the 2019 Paradise Jam?
While the nation is swept away — with good reason — by the Oregon Ducks, the Baylor Bears are a perfect 5-0 heading into the Paradise Jam this weekend in the U.S Virgin Islands. Kim Mulkey and the No. 2 Lady Bears will be joined by other Top 10 teams Oregon (1), South Carolina (5), and Louisville (8).
The Bears are in the same bracket as Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks and the two will face-off Saturday, Nov. 30.
Mulkey has a solid group of upperclassmen leading the charge this season. Graduate transfer Te’a Cooper, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, is averaging 12.6 points per game in her first season with the Bears. She is a worthy, if not a long-term replacement, for Chloe Jackson who graduated and was selected 15th overall in the WNBA Draft by the Chicago Sky.
Senior forward Lauren Cox who suffered an MCL sprain in the national title game in April was sidelined with a foot injury to start the 2019-20 campaign. In two games played this season, she is averaging 12 points per game and making her way back in time for the Paradise Jam. Didi Richards had an amazing Final Four performance in the spring. The junior guard is swift and speedy on both sides of the court.
In addition to a solid veteran core, Baylor has a strong up-and-coming group of underclassmen.
In five games, Mulkey has received great production from sophomore forward NaLyssa Smith. She leads the team in points per game (17.6), and rebounds (44). Smith’s fellow classmen Queen Egbo is the second leading scorer for the Bears. The center from Houston, Texas, is averaging 15.4 points in roughly 20 minutes per game. In five games, she is averaging nearly triple her points average from her freshman season in twice as many minutes.
The Baylor Bears have averaged 133 points in their first five games. However, the Lady Bears struggled against their only ranked opponent thus far. On November 19, the University of South Florida (21) held the defending champions to 58 points. USF forced 18 Baylor turnovers, but also made 19 of their own.
The Bears shot at a 35% clip from the floor and just north of 16% from the three point arc, well below their 2019-20 averages of 57% and 41%, respectively. Baylor went to the foul line nearly 50 times, but left 14 points on the table.
"You make a little more than we did from the foul line, you might could've breathed a little more,” said Mulkey after the game.
The game left questions as to whether this Baylor team can be competitive against ranked teams. All in all, Mulkey think last week’s game is simply a reflection of a team still growing, not of any glaring weaknesses.
What a week it was for 🐻's👇— Baylor Athletics (@BaylorAthletics) November 25, 2019
1⃣. @BaylorWBB pushed its record to 5-0 👏
2⃣. @BaylorVBall defeated No. 1 Texas in front of record home crowd 🙌
3⃣. @BUFootball clinched a berth in the #Big12Championship 💪
4⃣. @BaylorMBB won the @MyrtleInvite 🏆#SicEm 🐻 pic.twitter.com/wT2BijTPSE
“Our offense is not in the flow yet. We think one option, two options, and then we're supposed to score. It's going to take some time, but we'll get there," shared Mulkey. It is worth noting Lauren Cox (right foot) was not in the lineup for the USF game. Mulkey was encouraged by the Bears’ defense against the Bulls, especially Richards. o"We will get better in areas, but defense won this game for us,” said Hall of Fame coach Kim Mulkey.
Richards added, “It's what I'm supposed to do, guard their best player. "It's what I've been doing since last year,” said Richards.
The Paradise Jam will be a good barometer for the Bears, especially if preseason All-American Lauren Cox is able to return. As the reigning champions and the second-ranked team in the NCAA, the Bears will be a team to watch. Despite the rough game against the University of South Florida, there is a lot of talent on this team.
That said, their non-conference schedule to-date has not been as daunting as their competitors in the Paradise Jam. Oregon recently played Syracuse and South Carolina played Maryland, as a few examples. Team like Texas A&M and Oregon State have also competed against Team USA.
Will the lack of a competitive schedule hurt the Lady Bears? It might be too early to tell, but we will begin to get some answers this weekend in the U.S Virgin Islands.