By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Baylor senior forward Nina Davis called her last game at the Ferrell Center a "bittersweet thing."
But, it was far more sweet than bitter for the top-seeded Baylor Lady Bears (32-3), who made it through to the Sweet 16 for the ninth consecutive year with a convincing 86-46 blowout of ninth-seeded Cal Monday night before a Ferrell Center crowd of 3,910.
Davis and fellow seniors Alexis Prince, Khadijah Cave and Alexis Jones took their final curtain call with 3:28 left in the game, getting a rousing ovation from their home-court fans when they subbed out with Baylor leading 82-41.
"It was an amazing moment, just to see that this is our last home game here, to get the acknowledgement from the fans and to thank the fans and the coaches for everything they've given us," Cave said. "It was just an incredible experience, and we're all excited to have that little moment."
The two seniors in the starting lineup, Davis and Prince, shared team-high scoring honors with 16 points apiece and also combined for 11 rebounds, 11 assists and four steals in the Lady Bears' second straight blowout victory. Baylor opened the tournament with a 119-30 victory over Texas Southern that ranks as the most lopsided game in the 36-year history of the NCAA Tournament.
"They have a darned good team," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "I know they have to go to Oklahoma City first, but I think they have a great chance to be playing down the road here in Dallas (for the Final Four) and a shot to win the national championship."
In an Oklahoma City Region that played true to seeding, Baylor faces fourth-seeded Louisville (29-7) in Friday's region semifinals at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. The Cardinals handed fifth-seeded Tennessee (20-12) its first second-round loss in program history, beating the Lady Vols, 75-64.
Louisville is 2-0 all-time against the Lady Bears, handing them Sweet 16 losses in 2009 and '13, with the second loss coming in Oklahoma City.
"If memory serves me right, I think they made 16 out of 25 threes," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of the 82-81 loss when the Lady Bears were the top seeds and defending national champions. "For us to have come back and even make it a close game and a shot to win it was miraculous, because they couldn't miss. But, that's history.
"Now, you go to this game and they're a different team, we're a different team. . . . I think we have a size advantage, but really what does that mean at this level? If you can play, you can play."
Baylor's size also came into play in Monday's game. Even when 6-7 sophomore post Kalani Brown picked up two fouls in the first 70 seconds, the Lady Bears kept sending wave after wave at Cal's 6-4 sophomore center Kristine Anigwe, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
"Um, they have like six 6-4 players," said Anigwe, who was 7-of-16 from the field and turned it over 11 times. "So, I just tried to play them the same way. If one went out, another one came in, took her spot and played hard. And then another one came in, played hard. They all liked played kind of the same."
With Cal (20-14) hitting its first three shots, there were six lead changes in the first quarter before the Lady Bears reeled off nine straight points and went up 15-7 on an Alexis Jones layup off a feed from Davis.
The Golden Bears trailed by just five after the first period and were still within reach at 22-16 three minutes into the second quarter.
And then, in little more than the blink of an eye, the Lady Bears went on a game-changing 13-0 run to go up 35-16. After buckets by Beatrice Mompremier and Kristy Wallace, freshman guard Natalie Chou knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers and Prince scored off a post-up move.
"I know Prince gave me the extra pass, even though she could have shot it, which was really nice of her," Chou said. "When everyone touches the ball during a possession, you know that's going to be a great possession. It's just hard to guard. I'm glad I was able to finish the play."
Wallace, who finished with 10 points, nine assists and two steals, said Chou's treys were a "big momentum shifter."
"I know she's been working hard on her 3's," Wallace said, "so it was great to kind of find her, and she got herself open, and she hit them, which was really exciting."
The Lady Bears had a comfortable 20-point lead, 40-20, at the break and were able to stretch it out even further in the second half.
Gottlieb said the Golden Bears tried to employ a "pack-it-in" defense similar to what West Virginia used in beating Baylor, 77-66, in the Big 12 Championship final.
"Pack the paint and make them shoot jumpers," she said. "But then, you look at the stats, and those kids shooting jumpers are 40 percent, 40 percent. Natalie comes off the bench, 45 percent. It's not like they have a glaring weakness. . . . As people thought from the beginning of the year, they're a legit national title contender."
Baylor outscored Cal, 47-36, in the paint, finished with a 47-36 edge on the boards and got 34 points from a bench that included Mompremier (seven points, eight rebounds), freshman Lauren Cox (seven points, five rebounds, two blocks) and Jones (eight points, six rebounds, five assists).
Jones, who missed five games with a deep knee bruise, hit just 3-of-9 from the field. But, she contributed in pretty much every area, finishing with eight points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals.
"When you get fatigued and you're not running up and down the floor, sometimes you're short (on your shots) because of your legs," Jones said. "I thought she took good shots. I thought that she drove some to show you she can get in there."
In addition to the NCAA Tournament record for widest margin of victory, the Lady Bears' 138-point difference is the biggest two-game margin in tournament history.
At the OKC Region, second-seeded Mississippi State (31-4) faces third-seeded Washington (29-5) at 6:11 p.m. Friday, with the Baylor-Louisville game to follow.
"Embrace the moment," Cave said. "it's been (the theme) throughout the season. Each year, we get wristbands with a word on it, and this year it said embrace the moment. . . . We're all embracing the moment right now."