For a minute — or maybe a quarter — the bracket’s most Ursidae-heavy matchup looked like a game. The Cal Golden Bears effectively kept pace with the nearly-undefeated Baylor Lady Bears, mostly thanks to the relentless attack of 6’4 Cal center Kristine Anigwe; briefly it seemed like the No. 1-overall seed Baylor might finally expose its Achilles heel.
But then, Cal stopped scoring. Blink and you might have missed Baylor reclaiming a nine-point lead. The Golden Bears looked hapless through no fault of their own, as they were held to a five-minute scoring drought; Baylor’s lead would swell to 14 before the Golden Bears could answer. For the rest of the game, the Lady Bears never had less than a comfortable 11-point cushion — they wound up winning by 39, the largest margin of victory in the second round of the tournament.
“Some teams may have just a couple defensive stoppers, and we do have that,” explains star Baylor forward Lauren Cox. “But we also just play really good team defense.”
“Really good” is something of an understatement: instead of fighting fire with fire, the Lady Bears prefer to suck all the oxygen out of the arena. They’re averaging the most defensive rebounds (32.6) and the most blocks (an foreboding 7.2) in the country, and holding opponents to a league-best 31.3 percent field goal percentage.
Those gaudy defensive stats have gone largely unnoticed by national media, captivated by teams with flashier offenses in more competitive conferences (the Lady Bears were undefeated in Big 12 play). Baylor’s deep, balanced team has made their late-season and postseason dominance look easy — and despite the fact that the program hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2012, they might be better positioned than anyone to cut down the net in Tampa.
“I think people know about us, but I don’t know if they’re talking about us just because we’re not one of those teams that’s been getting those second and third losses,” says Cox. “There’s not much to talk about.”
The same couldn’t be said three months ago, when the team handed the UConn Huskies their first regular-season loss since 2014. The final score was 68-57, and UConn shot a spit-take-inducing 29.4 percent from the floor.
“That UConn game was kind of an eye-opener,” says center Kalani Brown, who is projected to be a top-10 pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft. “Like, we just beat one of the top teams in the country — we can really do this.”
The win was especially shocking given that Baylor had started its season in flux: sophomore Alexis Morris, heir apparent to the point guard position, was dismissed from the team (currently, she’s on the roster at Rutgers) leaving the role to Chloe Jackson, who had just transferred from LSU. On top of that, the team added five freshmen.
“Going into the season, we didn’t know how it was going to work since we had a whole new point guard and five young faces,” Cox says. “A lot of our preseason was just spent teaching the plays, teaching defense, that kind of thing.” When Cox is asked if she thought they had any chance of this kind of success going into the season, and her answer is frank:
The team adopted a mantra in the preseason, though, as they do every year: Together To Tampa, or #TTT. The team wears the slogan on yellow wristbands with green lettering; now, fans have taken to writing it on signs. “We’re gonna need everybody if we want to get there, and that’s the ultimate goal,” Brown explains. She’s never been to a Final Four, and this is her last shot.
The moment she realized what it would take came two weeks before that UConn game, when the Lady Bears suffered what would be their only loss of the season to Stanford. Brown and Cox — as ESPN commentator Holly Rowe calls them, the “Towers of Power” — combined for a paltry seven points. “A lot of the time, me and Kalani don’t have bad games together,” says Cox. “She’ll not have a good game or I’ll not have a good game, but it’s never both of us. But that’s what happened during that game — we both just struggled.”
“In a way, we needed that loss to just motivate us — like, we’re not going to be like that again,” Brown adds. “Remembering how we felt walking to that bus back in California is always in the back of our minds.”
Since they flipped that switch, Baylor’s biggest accomplishment has been its consistency. The team rose to No. 1 in the AP poll in Week 13 and stayed there until the end of the regular season. “After you beat the No. 1 team, it’s easy to get complacent and just walk into a gym and just think you’re going to be someone,” says Brown. “Coach made it evident that, ‘Hey, the target is definitely bigger on your back. Everybody’s going to be gunning for you now.’”
According to Coach Kim Mulkey and her squad the best defense is, well, a good defense. “We always want to have the rebounding advantage,” says Cox. “We have certain [rebounding] percentages among our goals. When we don’t get that, [Kim Mulkey] kind of gets on us.”
“She really harps on defense, and rebounding,” Brown adds. “We take pride in our defense — most people like to shoot the three on us when they play us, they don’t really bring the ball inside.”
Baylor’s suffocating defense and offense alike are enabled by the team’s depth — the team also has the most assists of any this season.
As a result, pinpointing an X-factor is tricky. “Didi is not as much of an offensive threat, but she’s the best defender on our team,” Cox adds. “She just brings a lot of excitement — she’s one of those players that will step in front of somebody and take a charge, and just really change the momentum of the game.” Cox is selling herself short — she’s averaging 2.5 blocks a game and a 10 percent block rate (all stats via Her Hoop Stats), one of the best in the nation.
But that’s the thing about Baylor: trying to score on them is akin to playing a particularly exhausting reverse version of Whack-a-Mole. Cox and Brown dominate inside, and if they’re struggling, freshmen NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo can provide a different look in the post. On the perimeter, Jackson is good for 1.6 steals per game. It’s not necessarily the most flashy style of play, but the Lady Bears have proven over and over again that they can grind it out with just about anyone.
Baylor is relying on a familiar adage: defense wins championships. The program’s work towards a third title, though, has significance beyond its players’ self-evident desire for a ring. “We kind of got into a rhythm of UConn winning, and people were like, ‘Oh, it’s the same every year,’” says Cox. If the Lady Bears took home the title, it would be the fourth different school to win the chip in four years. “The past few years we’ve had some other teams win, and different teams in the Final Four. I think it’s really good for the game overall.”
For now, though, Baylor is just working the only way possible during March Madness: one game at a time. “Couldn’t ask for anything better than a perfect season,” says Brown. “As long as we keep playing like that, we could make a very deep run in this tournament and hopefully get to a Final Four and maybe even the national championship. I truly believe that.”