By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Starting conference play on the road with six underclassmen, and coming off an extended Christmas break, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was nervous going into Thursday's game at Kansas State.
Natalie Chou and Kristy Wallace quickly calmed those nerves, combining on three 3-pointers and 12 of the sixth-ranked Lady Bears' first 14 points as Baylor opened defense of its Big 12 title with a resounding 88-58 victory over the Wildcats at Bramlage Coliseum.
"I thought Natalie Chou set the tone for us," said Mulkey, whose team improved to 11-1 overall with its eighth straight win overall and 27th in a row in this series. "Natalie can be passive, that's just her personality. She's one of the kindest people you will ever meet, and we don't need her to be kind. We need her to be very aggressive when the game starts, particularly when you're playing a team that plays zone like Kansas State does."
The early outside shooting by Chou and Wallace helped soften up K-State's packed-in zone defense, giving post players Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox enough breathing room to hit 15-of-27 shots and combine for 37 points.
"Them being so tight in, it did confuse our freshmen a little bit," said Brown, who had 20 points and nine rebounds. "We just made a few adjustments, ran some different plays, and it started working. We got the ball to the middle, and they were able to dump it down to us."
Baylor came blasting out of the gates, scoring the game's first 11 points and taking a 26-11 lead after the first quarter. The Lady Bears shot 50 percent in the first quarter and 3-of-5 from outside the arc.
Kayla Goth, who finished with a game-high 22 points, didn't get on the board until a jumper with 1:04 left in the opening quarter. By that time, the Lady Bears were already up by 15.
"It's tough to come back down 26-11 on anyone. It's definitely tough to come back on Baylor, getting down early," Goth said. "We need a better start. That's really the way we need to be to be successful."
K-State coach Jeff Mittie said "you're obviously not playing well at any end of the floor" when you fall behind 11-0 in the first 3 ½ minutes of the game.
"We had to scrap and claw to get it back to (a 15-point game) in the third quarter," Mittie said. "The early hole is problematic from a point standpoint, but it's really problematic because you're not doing anything well."
To their credit, the Wildcats (8-4, 0-1) did put up a fight. Trailing by 23 at the break, they held Baylor to one point over a five-minute stretch of the third quarter and pulled to within 54-41 on a pair of free throws by Shaelyn Martin at the 2:46 mark.
Freshman guard Alexis Morris ended the lengthy drought with a tear-drop floater in the lane, then buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to push the lead back to 66-48 going into the fourth quarter.
"When you're down by that much, just relax and shoot it. And I felt like that's what (K-State) started doing," Mulkey said. "It was like there was no pressure, just shoot the ball. We weathered the storm. I think they cut it to maybe 15 at one point, and then Morris hit a big shot and we started getting some more post touches."
Didi Richards, a 6-1 freshman, got extended minutes at forward and finished with eight points, six rebounds, three assists and a career-high three blocks.
Mulkey said it was a move she made after the Christmas break, but she "made my mind up to do it" during the 85-43 win over Nicholls State 10 days ago.
"I put her in there, and she dribbled from baseline to baseline with just a little oomph about her. And I just thought, she could be a mismatch problem in there," Mulkey said of Richards, who was 4-of-7 from the floor. "I just decided, don't put Natalie in there, let Didi go in there, because Natalie was struggling with her perimeter shot. I think it was just a lot to ask Natalie to do. Could Natalie do it? Yes, but let her relax and shoot the basketball and let Didi be a scrapper in there for you."
Cox had 17 points, nine boards, five assists and three blocks, while Chou and Morris chipped in with 13 points apiece. Outrebounded 41-28, K-State also got 13 points and nine rebounds from 6-4 sophomore forward Peyton Williams.
"I thought all those kids played hard. You wouldn't have ever known they were freshmen out there," Mulkey said. "I thought everybody was just confident shooting the ball. Who were you going to stop?"
The Lady Bears return home to play back-to-back games at the Ferrell Center, facing Texas Tech (6-6, 1-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday and Iowa State (7-5, 1-0) at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Tech was blown out at home by 24th-ranked Oklahoma State, 98-57, while the Cyclones pulled out a 71-69 overtime win at home over Kansas and hosts Oklahoma on New Year's Eve.