Baylor women showing they can win, even without Big 12 title

FILE - Baylor head coach Nicki Collen crouches on the sidelined during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. The Baylor women wont win the Big 12 regular-season title for the first time in 13 seasons or get to open the NCAA Tournament at home, ending what had also pretty much become a given over the past decade. But second-year coach Nicki Collen said the Bears will be OK. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File) (Charlie Neibergall, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

There will be no Big 12 regular-season title for the Baylor women for the first time in 13 seasons, and the Bears won't get to open the NCAA Tournament on their home court as had pretty much become a given over the past decade.

But even without raising a conference trophy or celebrating another title after their regular-season finale at home Saturday against West Virginia, the unranked Bears can clinch their 23rd consecutive season winning at least 20 games before going to the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.

“We’ve proven that this group can win,” second-year Bears coach Nicki Collen said. “But we have to be the best version of ourselves.”

After having three players selected in the WNBA draft last year, including two-time Big 12 player of the year NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo in the first 10 picks, the Bears went into this season with eight newcomers. Some of them are big pieces that haven't been able to play.

Baylor (19-10, 10-7 Big 12) won 63-54 at 12th-ranked Texas on Monday, holding the Longhorns to a season low in points, ending their 12-game home winning streak and preventing them from clinching at least a share of the Big 12 title in front of their fans. Darianna Littlepage-Buggs, named Big 12 freshman of the week for the seventh time earlier that day, had 19 points and 13 rebounds for Baylor, now 4-0 on the road against Top 25 teams.

“We showed we could play with anybody in the country,” junior guard Sarah Andrews said after the Texas game. “Our freshmen are honestly, they’re special. ... Buggs grew a lot. She stepped up, she knocked down big shots.”

Their current three-game winning streak followed a four-game skid, the longest for the Bears since losing 11 in a row on way to a 7-20 record in 1999-2000, the season before Kim Mulkey became their coach. They hadn't even lost three in a row since March 2008.

"We’re not talented enough to not show up and give everything we’ve got, and to be on task, and know our assignments and execute,” Collen said. “We can’t just show up, and just be more talented and be deeper, and be all these things. But I think we’re talented enough to beat anyone.”

During that four-game losing streak last month, the Bears had consecutive overtime losses at home to Top 25 teams Oklahoma and Iowa State. In between those games, the Bears lost by 19 and 21 points on the road to teams below them in the Big 12 standings.

“There’s some inconsistency. We’re playing in a league filled with three- and four-year and five-year starters,” Collen said. “Sometimes our youth and inexperience catches up with us.”

Collen was head coach of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream before she was hired by Baylor after Mulkey returned to her home state to become coach at LSU, now the third-ranked team and with its only loss coming against No. 1 South Carolina. The Bears won all three of their national championships in Mulkey's 21 seasons.

Baylor had a reduced roster and lost its first two Big 12 games last season, but still went on to win their 12th consecutive conference title in Collen's debut. But the Bears' 66-game non-conference home winning streak, and string of 12 consecutive NCAA Sweet 16 appearances, ended when they lost to No. 10 seed South Dakota in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Ferrell Center.

With Smith, Egbo and Jordan Lewis gone to the WNBA, the Bears added three freshmen and four Division I transfers to the roster. But they are still missing 5-foot-11 playmaker Aijha Blackwell and 6-foot forward Dre'Una Edwards, a former Pac-12 freshman of the year with Utah who didn't get a waiver from Kentucky after being there the last three years.

Blackwell averaged 15 points and 10.2 rebounds in 79 games the past three seasons at Missouri. But she suffered a lower leg injury in the third game this season, and played only limited minutes in five more until mid-January.

“I thought Aijha was certainly not going to be NaLyssa Smith, but was going to be a different type of NaLyssa Smith, a kid that was going to be in the running for player of the year in our league,'” Collen said. “I think she’s that good, who would give us an interior presence offensively, that gave us a toughness."

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