DALLAS – Kim Mulkey is returning to Texas for another Final Four, keenly aware that her LSU Tigers will play a short road trip from the school she made synonymous with women’s basketball.
Mulkey is the third coach to take multiple schools to the Final Four, doing so in her second season back in her home state of Louisiana after leading Baylor to the national semifinals four times in 21 seasons.
The Bears won three national championships under Mulkey, combined for 23 regular-season and tournament titles in the Big 12 Conference and made the NCAA Tournament in all but one of her seasons.
“You never spend 21 years of your life building a dynasty, and that’s what we did at Baylor. I think we can all agree with that,” Mulkey said Tuesday. “I still have a home there. My grandchildren are there. So my heart will always be there.”
Mulkey and the Tigers (33-2) will face first-time Final Four qualifier Virginia Tech (31-4) in the opener Friday night in Dallas, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Mulkey’s former college home in Waco. Defending champion South Carolina (36-0) plays Iowa (30-6) in the late game.
Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer took three teams to the Final Four, and Gary Blair made it that far with two.
Blair’s second was Texas A&M in 2011, when he won an Elite Eight showdown with Mulkey at American Airlines Center. Five years later in Dallas, the Bears again fell one win short of the Final Four.
Mulkey is back in Dallas with a new team after a 54-42 Elite Eight victory over Miami.
“There will be Baylor people sitting in my section that are heartbroken that I left,” Mulkey said. “I get it. Someday when I’m retired, maybe I’ll write another book and have more details, but I love Baylor University, the fans there, the Lady Bear fans there. But it was time. Timing is everything in life.”
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has fonder memories of the home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. The Gamecocks won their first national title there five years ago, beating Mississippi State after the Bulldogs ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak in the semifinals.
“Dallas, it will be etched in my memory forever,” said Staley, whose team – the No. 1 overall seed – earned a return trip with an 86-75 victory over Maryland. “I remember vividly the police escorts. I remember our fans. I remember UConn losing. That was a huge moment in college women’s basketball.”
Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks is a Dallas Cowboys fan, so he remembers seeing star quarterback Dak Prescott in the stands five years ago rooting for his alma mater, Mississippi State.
Prescott remembers the “huge moment” to which Staley referred. His reaction to Morgan William’s buzzer-beating game-winner in overtime made the rounds on social media five years ago.
“That was a surreal moment,” Brooks said. “But my surreal moment was last night.”
That’s when the No. 1 seed Hokies beat Ohio State 84-74 to reach their first Final Four in Brooks’ seventh season. Iowa, which beat Louisville 97-83 in the Elite Eight, has advanced this far for the first time since 1993, when Stringer became the first coach to lead multiple teams to the Final Four.
Stringer had done it with Cheyney in the inaugural tournament season of 1982, and after the Iowa trip, she went twice more with Rutgers in 2000 and 2007.
“She called me immediately after we beat Louisville,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “In fact, she was my first voice message I got that night. I know coach Stringer is behind us. I haven’t been able to get back to her yet, but I will soon.”
Mulkey’s Bears were one of the top seeds in 2017, hoping to chase a title just up the road from their Waco campus. Mississippi State beat Baylor in overtime in the Elite Eight before the OT thriller against UConn.
The Tigers are this deep in the tournament for the first time since the last of five consecutive Final Four appearances in 2008, all of which ended in the semifinals.
Mulkey was asked if she felt the burden of living up to those glory years.
“We’ve already done that,” said Mulkey, who has now reached the NCAA Tournament in 19 consecutive seasons as a coach. “Winning a national championship will only put an exclamation mark on it. We have exceeded probably what anybody could just realistically say was possible this quickly.”