By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Largely untested through the first eight games of conference play, the third-ranked Baylor Lady Bears were finally pushed Sunday afternoon in Morgantown.
Trailing by as many as nine and down by six at the half, Baylor's suffocating defense took over late in the game and helped the Lady Bears pull out an 83-72 win over the 20th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers before a season-high crowd of 5,073 at WVU Coliseum.
"I think it's definitely what we needed, just to give us a little gut check that everything's not going to be a walk in the park," said senior forward Dekeiya Cohen, one of four double-figure scorers for the Lady Bears with 13 points. "It's not always going to be a blowout, we're going to have to grind some out. And I think that's what we did today."
After winning its first eight league games by an average margin of 31.8, and none by fewer than 22, Baylor had to play to the end in this one and didn't take control until a closing 13-2 run that started with a Kristy Wallace 3-pointer.
"I thought our problem was on the defensive end," said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, whose team won its 16th in a row, improving to 20-1 overall and 9-0 at the halfway point in the Big 12 race. "In the second half, we had to start switching at all positions just to be able to defend them. I think the last 4, 4 ½ minutes, they went without a field goal. I thought it was the adjustment we made to switch at all positions."
While the Lady Bears struggled early, missing their first four shots and shooting just 32 percent in the first quarter, the Mountaineers (17-5, 5-5) came out on fire. Led by guard Naomi Davenport and senior forward Teana Muldrow, West Virginia drained seven first-half 3-pointers and shot 54.5 percent in the first two quarters to take a 47-41 lead.
In a halftime TV interview, Mulkey called Baylor's defense "pathetic."
"We didn't come out ready to go, and West Virginia was hitting shots. Credit to them," said Wallace, who followed up a career-high 27-point outing in Thursday's 81-56 win over No. 6 Texas with 25 points against the Mountaineers. "(At halftime), Coach Mulkey just reiterated that defense wins games. We came out and just focused on that. Our message was just to pick up the energy and get out there and play some defense."
Although Baylor opened the second half on a 10-2 run to take a 51-49 lead on a Kalani Brown layup, it wasn't like the Mountaineers exactly cooled off. They hit 3-of-5 from outside the arc and 6-of-12 overall in the third quarter.
Even after the Lady Bears took the quick lead in the first couple minutes, West Virginia didn't go away. Davenport and Muldrow hit 3-pointers in a 9-3 run that put them back on top 58-54 and then Chania Ray tied it up at 64-64 after Baylor threatened to pull away again.
Lauren Cox, scoreless in the first half, hit her first basket at the 3:21 mark and then gave the Lady Bears a 66-64 lead going into the fourth on a layup with 29 seconds left.
"She's so mentally tough, she can just pep herself up and be ready to go," Wallace said of Cox, who was 3-for-3 in the second half after missing her first five shots. "And that's what she did, she came out ready to go in the second half."
After lighting it up for the first three quarters, West Virginia hit just one of its last 10 shots and 2-of-13 in the fourth quarter, when the Mountaineers were outscored 17-8.
In their first real test since an 82-68 loss at UCLA all the way back on Nov. 18, the Lady Bears found themselves all tied up at 70-70 with 6 ½ minutes to go.
But, that's when another adjustment paid off in a big way. Assistant coach Toyelle Wilson had suggested putting freshman Alexis Morris in at the point and moving Wallace to the off guard so that "we can take the ball out of Kristy's hands and let other people find her."
With the game tied, Brown found Wallace open for a 3-pointer from the corner that gave the Lady Bears the lead for good, 73-70, with 3:17 to go.
"My coaches are so good," Mulkey said. "They may make 10 suggestions, and I listen to one, but keep making those suggestions. (Coach Wilson) said, `Let's go back with Alexis Morris at the point and move Kristy to the off guard and go with some speed on the floor where we can push it."
Wallace also hit a baseline jumper off an inbounds pass from Morris, then Cohen capped the scoring with another jumper as Baylor remained unblemished in league play and on track to win its eighth consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship.
Brown recorded her 10th double-double of the season and 22nd of her career with 18 points and 12 rebounds, while Natalie Chou hit 6-of-12 shots from the field and scored 13 points to snap a three-game scoreless streak.
"I told Natalie on the bench, `When you're a shooter, you can't stop shooting, you can't lose your confidence,''' Mulkey said. "But, when you feel like you're just a little hesitant, do something else on the floor. I tell her all the time, don't allow your offensive misses from the perimeter dictate me having to take you out of the game. Drive a little bit, get to the foul line, defend a little bit. . . . Don't just stand out there and shoot 3's and be nervous the rest of the game."
In its third straight game against a ranked opponent, Baylor returns home to face No. 19 Oklahoma State (15-5, 6-3) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.