This article was written by Meg Cullar and printed in the Summer 2012 issue of The Baylor Line.
THE VERBS ALONE TELL the story. According the nation’s headline writers, the Baylor Lady Bears stampeded, stomped, dominated, derailed, beat down, and overwhelmed their opponents on the basketball court this year.
But only one verb really mattered—win. And the Lady Bears did that every time they stepped onto the hardwood during the 2011-12 season, taking home the ultimate prize—the NCAA championship—and making them the only basketball team in NCAA history, men’s or women’s, to notch forty wins in a perfect season. The Lady Bears’ 80-61 victory over Notre Dame on April 3 marked Baylor’s second national championship in women’s basketball.
In the end, sportscasters went with a noun. Baylor graduate and ESPN anchor Trey Wingo ’85 called the Lady Bears’ final victory a “coronation.”
Junior post Brittney Griner—who racked up twenty-six points, thirteen rebounds, and five blocks against Notre Dame—said she was happy not for herself, but for the team. “This is what our team wanted,” she said. ‘And this is what we promised Coach when we got here.”
Coach Kim Mulkey always made sure that her star got plenty of touches. The term “the Griner Effect” was coined to describe the Baylor player’s dominance. Yes, she can dunk. But Griner says blocking shots is her favorite part of the game. All season long, ambitious opponents would commence their usual drive to the basket, only to meet the seven-foot-plus wingspan of Griner.
Many a player just kept dribbling—preferring to emerge on the other side of the paint rather than go against Griner. For the season, Griner averaged 23.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and an NCAA-best 5.2 blocks per game.
Despite her. dominance, Griner epitomized a spirit of unselfish cooperation that permeated the team and was undoubtedly a factor in their success all year long. After Baylor’s 59-47 win over Stanford in the Final Four game, Mulkey was asked if it surprised her to win with only three field goals from Griner. “Not at all,” she said. “This is not the Brittney Griner show.”
Baylor guard Odyssey Sims added nineteen points in the final game. Mulkey told ESPN’s Wingo that Sims was “not just the best point guard on the floor today. I think she’s the best point guard in the country, and that’s saying a lot.”
Notre Dame’s guard Skylar Diggins said of Baylor, “They’ve got multiple players that can score twenty. And they showed they’re the best team in the country.”
A stunning supporting cast included forwards Destiny Williams—who scored twelve against Notre Dame—and Brooklyn Pope, both transfers to Baylor. They knew to be ready for the quick pass when defenders swarmed Griner. “She likes it when people double- and triple-team her, because it opens up opportunities for everyone else,” Sims said of Griner. “It makes her happy when she can get the ball to us and we hit a shot.” Griner also dishes the ball out to the perimeter, where Sims or junior starters Kimetria “Nae-Nae” Hayden or Jordan Madden can nail a trey. “Jordan and Nae-Nae are the key to our national champion-ship run,” Mulkey said earlier in the season. “They’ve been told that from the time they stepped on the practice court.” A strong defense was also key to the Lady Bears’ success, and that went beyond Griner, too. Hayden and Madden harassed opponents and never showed a drop of fear, no matter whom they had to guard. Sims, pesky as a mosquito to any player trying to bring the ball up the court, was frequently described as the nation’s best defensive guard.
Cue the video
At the ESPN desk after the championship game, Wingo and Mulkey discussed the team’s challenge in being a favorite all year. Wingo asked. “How did you manage the weight of last year’s lost championship and turn it into a title this year?” Mulkey said, “We could not avoid people having expectations for us. I decided as a coach last summer to embrace it. We do a video before each game, and we let people know this is what we expect.”
That pregame video, which the team debuted last November at Baylor’s Ferrell Center, features Mulkey in a locker room pep talk. She starts with the national championship they didn’t win—last year’s disappointing loss to A&M in the Elite Eight to end last season. “I want each of you to remember how you felt inside as we took that bus home after that last loss,” Mulkey says. “And I want you to keep that feeling. And when you step on that court this year, you use that feeling to motivate yourselves. And if you allow it to motivate you, you will win that national championship this year.” And the crowd goes wild.
Baylor alumnus Damon Crump ’86, who owns Waco’s Jackalope Entertainment, produced that video, and he admitted that he thought it was a bold approach. “I thought it was a brave theme to react to last year and talk about the disappointment and how it became a motivational factor,” he said. “Most intro videos are pretty safe; they’re usually highlight videos. Fortunately this year, they wanted something a little different.” He said the “unfinished business” theme originated in the athletic department and that an “Oscar-winning” performance from Mulkey made it work. “I knew that to pull it off, Coach Mulkey was going to have to be passionate about the performance,” Crump said. “She nailed it that first time. As soon as I said, ‘Cut,’ the whole team burst into applause.”
The Lady Bears were so loaded with talent that they won thirty-five of their forty victories by at least ten points this season. No opponent ever managed to make more than 50 percent of its field goals—that’s a statistic that runs back 215 games, dating to March 2006. The lopsided wins came despite the fact that Mulkey routinely sat her starters rather than running up a score, and she frequently cleared her bench with plenty of time on the clock. The Big 12 is typically a challenging conference in women’s basketball. Texas A&M won the national title last year, after all. But Baylor made it look easy for most of the regular season—until Texas Tech.
The Lady Bears and Lady Raiders have some history, after an altercation between Griner and Lady Raider Jordan Barncastle two years earlier. Baylor won in Lubbock by only eight points, and when the Lady Raiders came to Waco, Tech led 35-30 at halftime. But Baylor eventually won 56-51, the smallest margin all year (tying their 66-61 early win over Connecticut). Baylor’s average margin of victory in the Big 12 regular season was 23.3 points. “A good game like this definitely helps get us prepared for the tournament, because every game is going to be close,” Griner said after the Tech win in Waco, which clinched a share of the Big 12 Championship. Of course, Baylor went on to take the outright championship and then win the Big 12 Tournament title, beating A&M 73-50 on March 10 in the final. The NCAA Tournament took the Lady Bears to Bowling Green, Ohio, for the first and second rounds. The new Stroh Center there seemed like it was built for Baylor’s star, with a large “BG” painted in the center of the floor. In the second round, Griner slammed her first dunk of the season against Florida, after taking an improvised shovel pass from Hayden. She became just the second woman to dunk in the NCAA Tournament with the one-handed slam.
The next game, when Baylor beat Georgia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen, Griner delivered a two-handed monster dunk off a break-away feed from Brooklyn Pope. It was the seventh dunk of her college career. When Baylor met number-two Stanford in the Final Four’s first contest, it was the third time in the season that Baylor had faced a number-two. The Cardinal collapsed on Griner inside, and the strategy worked for a while as some of Baylor’s starters struggled to hit their shots. Then senior Terran Condrey came off the bench and turned the tide with clutch shots, contributing thirteen points. “She’s not real loud,” Griner said of her softspoken teammate, “but you definitely hear her on the court.” Baylor led by two after a first half of shifting leads. About four minutes into the second half, the Lady Bears turned on the gas and sped away. They won the game 59-47 to advance to the national title game.
The Baylor family, fresh off the resurgence of its football program and a Heisman Trophy winner in Robert Griffin III, was ready to keep on cheering—and winning. The Lady Bears drew record crowds during the season, with an average home attendance of more than ninety-two hundred. They marked their first advance sell-out when tickets for the December 18 game against Connecticut sold out two weeks before the game. The A&M and Texas Tech home games were also sell-outs. Students got in on the action, throwing support behind Baylor’s basketball teams throughout the season. Some lucky students had the chance to share the Final Four with the Lady Bears. Junior Ryan Dupre rode one of four buses full of Baylor students that made the trip to Denver—for free. The university picked the lucky students based on the number of Lady Bears games they had attended. Two busloads went for the entire Final Four, and two came only for the championship game. Dupre said that university officials kept an eye on them in Denver and required them to attend certain events before receiving their game tickets. He was a little skeptical about attending a pep rally, which he hadn’t done since high school. “It wasn’t what we were expecting,” he said. “We got to see the team, and they were really pumped up for the game, and we got to hear Coach Mulkey talk. There was a lot of energy.” Dupre said it was fun to line up and high-five the team. But the two games were the highlight. “To be honest, Baylor had a better turnout than Notre Dame, and we were a lot louder,” he said. “I got to meet Baylor alumni at the game, and they really liked the fact that we were there. And we got heckled by some Notre Dame fans and some funny stuff like that.” Other students were swept up in the excitement of the season, too.
Baylor’s spirit squads—two groups of yell leaders, the song leaders, and the mascots—were always in attendance at home games. And Lariat photographers and writers were there covering each game. In fact, the sports columns of Lariat writer Krista Pirtle were picked up for a regular blog on the New York Times website. Senior Brenna Middleton has played trumpet for three years in the Golden Wave Band’s Courtside Players, who perform at men’s and women’s basketball home games, volleyball home games, and the basketball tournament games. “I’ve been in Courtside since my freshman year, and I’ve gone to tournaments every single year,” she said. “But the Final Four in Denver with the Lady Bears was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had on a tournament—ever, ever, ever.” She said one reason was the fan support. “I think it was because of the incredible athletic year Baylor has been having as a whole,” she said. “It’s been building momentum, and then it kind of exploded during the Lady Bears’ time in Denver. We were just feeding off the excitement of the Baylor Nation.”
And, by the way, the Baylor band was a champion at the Final Four, too. After an open practice for all four teams at the Pepsi Center, there was a “Battle of the Bands” with each group playing two or three songs they all knew. “We won,” Middleton said proudly of the victory scored by crowd reaction. “It was early on, and not a lot of fans were there yet, so we must have won over some non-Baylor people.” Band members get to ride on the team plane, and Middleton has enjoyed getting to know the players.
“Brittney always gets up on the plane and walks around talking to anybody that’s willing to talk to her,” Middleton said. “She’s so silly and fun. And Suni [Agbuke] is such a sweetheart; she is just so nice about always making a point to thank us for being there. Lindsay [Palmer] and Makenzie [Robertson] are the same way. Coach Mulkey always gets on the intercom and thanks everyone for being there. Then she says, ‘OK, now go to class tomorrow.'” Middleton plans to graduate, after three and a half years, in December, so this was her last chance to accompany the Lady Bears to the Final Four. She called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “When I’m eighty years old and have grandchildren at Baylor, this is what’s going to count,” she said. “Not my grade in Spanish, which did drop a little bit.”
The trophy cases of individual Lady Bears are filling up. Mulkey was Naismith Coach of the Year and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year. Griner won the Naismith Trophy, the Wade Trophy, the Wooden Award, and several others. Mulkey and Griner were Coach of the Year and Player of the Year, respectively, for the Big 12 Conference. Griner was a unanimous selection to the Associated Press All-America team, and Sims was chosen for the second team. The U.S. Basketball Writers Association also named Griner and Sims to their ten-member All-American team, as did the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
Mulkey kept out of the spotlight after the championship, likely in recovery mode—and not just from the on-court excitement. During the tournament, she was diagnosed with Bells Palsy, a condition that causes temporary facial paralysis. She joked about her “crooked” smile and told reporters to watch out—the steroids she was taking for treatment might make her grouchy. She said yelling caused a strange hollowness in her hearing. “But it’s not going to keep me from hollering,” she said.
A bit of scary news came in May when Griner broke her right wrist in a longboarding accident. Mulkey told the Waco Tribune-Herald, “I’d rather have her out longboarding than being in bars, being arrested. I’m not going to take away from my players the ability to just be a normal college kid.”
Griner should be healed well before the Lady Bears begin practice in the fall. She had already announced her decision not to try to compete in the Olympics because of her summer class schedule and a family illness.
Four seniors leave the Lady Bears squad this year—Terran Condrey, the hot hand off the bench; Ashley Field, who always guarded Griner during practice; Lindsay Palmer, who twice won the award for the top GPA at the Final Four; and Cherrish Wallace, who was a student assistant this year after taking a “medical retirement” from basketball.
The roster will see additions, too. Mariah Chandler should be coming off the redshirt list next season, but there has been no word on whether junior Shanay Washington will return after a repeat ACL injury that halted a promising comeback.
The Lady Bears have an impressive list of freshman recruits, led by six-foot-two wing player Alexis Prince of Maitland, Florida. Also joining the team are guard Niya Johnson, forward Chardonae Fuqua, six-foot-four post Kristina Higgins, and guard Destiny Brown.
The experts at the ESPN desk following Baylor’s championship win were confident that the Lady Bears are poised for a repeat title. Kara Lawson, a former Tennessee player who followed the tournament with Wingo, recommended that the Lady Bears keep a watchful eye on Connecticut and Duke next year. But she said the Lady Bears “have just as much of a chance next year as they did this year.”
Meg Cullar is news editor of the Baylor Line and teaches writing as an adjunct professor in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations, and New Media.