Baylor women going for 10th Big 12 tourney title before NCAA

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is no advocate of playing conference tournaments, especially after winning a regular-season title like the Lady Bears have now done in the Big 12 for 11 years in a row.

“I don’t think conference tournaments do anything but hurt you,” Mulkey said. “I just don’t put much stock in it.”

Still, if they’re going to have to play those extra games before the NCAA Tournament, they might as well try to win those, too.

The sixth-ranked Lady Bears (22-2, 17-1 Big 12) carry a 14-game winning streak into the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. They won’t play until Friday, against the winner of Thursday’s first-round game between No. 8 seed TCU (9-14) and No. 9 seed Kansas (7-17).

“We’re going to go to play, and play hard and try to win it,” Mulkey said. “But the most important one is the following week.”

Baylor, the winner of the most recent NCAA Tournament championship game played two years ago, has been to the title game in 10 of the past 11 Big 12 tournaments, and won nine of them.

Seventh-seeded Texas Tech (10-14) takes on No. 10 seed Kansas State (8-17) in the other first-round game Thursday, with that winner playing No. 2 seed West Virginia (19-5). The other quarterfinal matchups Friday are Texas (17-8) vs. Iowa State (16-9); and Oklahoma (12-11) against Oklahoma State (17-7).

Mulkey and her team were in a plane on a tarmac in Waco, Texas, only minutes from taking off for Kansas City last March when the call came that the Big 12 tourney was being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The only Big 12 loss for Baylor this season was 75-71 to Iowa State on Jan. 16 after a two-week program pause following Mulkey’s positive COVID-19 test. That ended the Lady Bears’ 61-game home court winning streak 10 months after a one-point loss at Iowa State snapped their 58-game Big 12 winning streak. That 2020 loss to the Cyclones came in the regular-season finale that wound up being the last game of a 28-2 season cut short.

Junior forward NaLyssa Smith is the leading scorer (18.0 ppg) and rebounder (9.3 rpg) for the Lady Bears, who have three other players also averaging double-figure scoring: former Stanford transfer DiJonai Carrington (13.3 ppg), senior guard Moon Ursin (11.5) and post player Queen Egbo (11.3).

DiDi Richards, who transitioned to starting point guard as a senior and overcame a scary injury before the season, leads the Big 12 with 6.7 assists per game.

“I feel good about our team,” Mulkey said.

GOT THEM ALL IN

Unlike on the men’s side, every Big 12 women’s team played all 18 conference games.

That included Baylor and West Virginia, the league’s only Top 25 teams, playing a makeup game Monday night that had no impact on the standings. It was the fourth straight road game for the Mountaineers, and leading scorer Kysre Gondrezick sprained her ankle, though she is expected to be OK for the Big 12 tournament.

“Fourth straight away game … I just don’t understand that, I never will,” WVU coach Mike Carey said. “We’ve got to regroup and get ready for the Big 12 tournament. I mean we’ve got a No. 2 seed. We’re in great shape.”

TIP-INS

Iowa State junior Ashley Joens is the Big 12’s leading scorer with 23.4 points a game, and is the only player in the league shooting 90% from the free throw line. … Texas 6-foot-5 junior post player Charli Collier, averaging a double-double at 20.9 points and 12.2 rebounds per game, has already said she will skip her senior season to enter the WNBA draft this spring. Many expect her to be the No. 1 overall pick. … There are two other Big 12 players averaging double-doubles: Oklahoma State senior forward Natasha Mack (19.8 ppg, Big 12-leading 12.3 ppg) and West Virginia’s Esmery Martinez (13.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg).

LIMITED CAPACITY IN KC RETURN

Attendance at Municipal Auditorium will be limited to about 20% capacity, or about 2,000 fans. The Big 12 women’s tournament is being played in Kansas City for the first time since 2012.