By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
OKLAHOMA CITY - Knocked to the floor on a hard foul by Jordan Hosey with 37 seconds left in the third quarter of Monday's Big 12 Championship final, Kalani Brown was helped to the bench by her teammates, unsure whether she could put any weight on her left ankle.
For just a moment, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey had to think, "Not again!"
But then, she told her 6-foot-7 All-American post, "Your mama spanks you harder than that."
"To see her go down, it was hard," said 6-4 sophomore forward Lauren Cox. "But she's tough, I knew she was going to get up and play through it."
That scare averted, the second-ranked and top-seeded Lady Bears (31-1) pulled away with a late 9-0 run and beat the Texas Longhorns, 77-69, to sweep the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles for the seventh time in eight years and win their 28th game in a row.
"I've been around a lot of basketball, and this is going to go down as one of the gutsiest performances I've ever been a part of," Mulkey said. "There wasn't a lot of X's and O's for me to draw up the last five minutes of that game. What it boiled down to is kids that had to play three games in three days, and they had to play every game, because we had nobody to substitute, really. That's what made it special."
If there were questions about freshman Alexis Morris being able to replace injured senior Kristy Wallace at point guard or whether eight (players) really is enough, Baylor answered them in Monday's final and the three-game tournament run.
In beating eighth-ranked Texas (26-6) for the third time this season, the Lady Bears did it with basically six players. Freshman guard Moon Ursin played the last 49 seconds of the second quarter with both Dekeiya Cohen and Juicy Landrum strapped with two fouls.
Making her third straight start since Wallace went down with an ACL injury, Morris scored nine of her career-high 19 points in the fourth quarter and added three assists, one steal and only one turnover in playing all 40 minutes.
"It's just kids gutting it out, and then you go out and do it with a freshman," Mulkey said. "See, everbody was watching that, 'Can they do it without Kristy Wallace?' And I kept telling y'all, the kid can play."
Yes, she can.
Brown, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, said the freshman point guard was "phenomenal all tournament."
"She made good decisions, made shots when she needed to, she was a leader leading this team," said Brown, who had 20 points and eight rebounds. "And when she needed to look to somebody, she had me, Lauren and Dekeiya to help her. She is just a great player, and she hasn't just been doing that at this tournament, she has been doing it all year."
Like the first two games against the Longhorns, Baylor led most of the way despite 14 lead changes and eight ties. But this one was in doubt right down to the wire and was tied with two minutes to play.
Up by 19-18 after the first quarter and 35-33 at halftime, Baylor took its biggest lead to that point (52-46) on Brown's fast-break layup at the end of the third quarter. She did return to the floor after an extended break for the officials to check the monitor for a potential flagrant foul, but missed the free throw.
"My ankle kind of twisted, and my pain tolerance is zero, so I guess you could call me a big crybaby," she said. "When I went over there, I popped some Ibuprofen in, and my team was like, 'Come on, Lani, we need you.' And I know they needed me. I was like, 'I'm OK.' I got up and walked in and said, 'I'm in it, let's go.'''
When Landrum knocked down a 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter, it looked like the Lady Bears were ready to finally put this one away. But, Brooke McCarty knocked down a trey of her own and started a 9-0 run capped by a Joyner Holmes layup off a Morris turnover that tied it up again at 55-55.
McCarty buried another trey to give the Longhorns their last lead of the game, 58-57, with 5:24 left. Morris quickly gave Baylor the lead back with a driving layup, then fed Cohen for a jumper before knocking down a 3-pointer that made it 64-60.
Still, Texas didn't go away. A three-point play by Lashann Higgs (20 points) and a free throw by Holmes pulled the Longhorns back even again at 64-64.
"I thought our team played really hard tonight," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "The two previous games that we played, in particular the first one against Baylor, I thought we were not as competitive as we needed to be. I thought we played hard and really competitive, but we just didn't execute things the way that you have to execute against a team as good as they are."
With Baylor clinging to a one-point lead after a Brown free throw, Cox rebounded a miss by Higgs and was fouled by Holmes. That's when Aston was hit with a "poorly, poorly timed technical that I take full responsibility for. I'm disappointed in myself," she said.
"I felt like there was a lot going on at times . . . it felt like a knit-picky call based on everything that was going on," Aston said.
The Lady Bears took full advantage, with Cox hitting four straight free throws that stretched the lead to 69-64. She then hit two more free throws after getting fouled on an offensive rebound, then fed Landrum with a snowball pass for a layup that made it 73-64.
"I didn't see the exchange, but I heard what she apparently said," Cox said. "I was really confident (on the free throws). I knew they were going to be big free throws, and I knew I needed to knock them down."
Cox, who joined Brown, Morris and the Longhorns' McCarty and Ariel Atkins on the all-tournament team, finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocks and four assists and never left the court.
"Defense is a huge part of my game," said Cox, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. "Going into it, I knew scoring wasn't going to be big for me. Other people were going to take care of that."
Cohen chipped in with eight points, 10 rebounds and four assists, while Landrum had 11 points and Didi Richards six. Texas had four players in double figures, with McCarty scoring 16 and Atkins and Jatarie White adding 12 apiece.
Baylor and Texas will now await the NCAA Tournament selections, which will be announced on ESPN at 6 p.m. CDT next Monday, March 12.
"I really don't invest much time in trying to figure it out anymore," Mulkey said. "I just invest in the team. Go play."