OKLAHOMA CITY – Nina Davis went from the go-to, do-it-all player for Baylor early in her collegiate career to filling in the blanks her senior year.
While her performances on the court this season have been impressive – especially her 21-point showing in the Sweet 16 against Louisville – her response to her changing role has been the key.
Not only to Baylor’s 33-3 season but also to making one more dream come true – advancing to the Final Four.
“She’s handled it like a trooper,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “She wants to get to a Final Four before her career is over. You’re right, selfish, huh? Parents that you see on TV today, selfish players that you see on TV today. They want everything today. Yeah, well this kid, all she wants today is a Final Four and a chance at a national championship.”
Davis emerged as the second threat behind Odyssey Sims her freshman year before having to carry the load her sophomore year when she averaged 21.1 points in 32.1 minutes per contest and was named a first team all-American.
It was then that Mulkey began to see the pieces come together for the future.
The Baylor coach liked what the three starters were doing then – Davis, Alexis Prince (8.6 points off 42 percent shooting) and Khadijiah Cave (9.3 points off 55 percent shooting with 4.6 rebounds). She also knew Duke transfer Alexis Jones and a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans (Kalani Brown and Beatrice Mompremier) would play the following year.
“Nina Davis didn’t have any help around her for two years that she made all these All-American teams,” Mulkey said. “She had to do it every night. She had to take all the shots. She had to get all the rebounds, play all the minutes. She just kept stopping at Elite Eight. Like all good programs we wanted to get help around her, to relieve some of that pressure.”
Jones was the scorer Baylor needed to take some of the weight off Davis’s shoulders as Jones put up 15 points per contest and hit at 41.2 percent from behind the arc, while Brown and Mompremier were the perfect complements to Davis in the high-low sets.
That dynamic in the paint was a big part of why Baylor’s game against Louisville wasn’t close at all.
Davis led the way offensively, while Mompremier (14 points, 13 rebounds) and Brown (12 points, 12 rebounds) each had a double-double.
“Kalani and Beatrice are very efficient,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “They score around the basket, which then opens things up for Nina. I thought she does a great job of taking advantage of that. She did it tonight.”
When the ball goes down low to one of the bigs, Davis doesn’t just stand there and watch what happens next.
Instead she moves, she relocates to a different spot on the floor.
“Coming into the game, we knew (Louisville) focused a lot on our bigger-sized players,” Davis said. “They try to double them. I try to release the pressure, get into the open spots, cut to the basket when they’re doubling them. Just try to make it as easy as possible.”
But it’s not just the inside game that’s working for Baylor right now.
If that were the case, then teams would just clog the paint – keeping every defender well inside the 3-point line – and force the Lady Bears to shoot from the perimeter.
But Baylor leads the country in 3-point percentage (40.5).
The last three Elite Eight years the Lady Bears had only one 3-point threat with maybe one or two more who could sink a couple.
This season, Baylor has Alexis Jones (42 percent), Kristy Wallace (38.3 percent) and Alexis Prince (41.4 percent) around the perimeter.
Who do opposing teams help off of to try and contain the likes of Brown and Mompremier inside?
“I think five, six, seven and eight on this year’s ballclub, you have to guard them all,” Walz said. “There’s only one or two kids that I thought on the roster, when they got into the game, we were going to try to make them shoot and score.”
And that’s why Davis’s averages have dropped this season – down to 12.8 points in 23.7 minutes per contest.
But as a whole, Baylor’s stats have increased.
The Lady Bears are shooting better this season (49.8 percent) than any of the past three seasons (44.1 percent in 2014, 47.9 percent in 2015, 48.4 percent in 2016).
For the first time since Davis’s freshman season, Baylor is putting up at least 80 points per game (83.6 points in 2014, 89.6 points this season).
The defense, though, is the biggest improvement as the Lady Bears are holding their opponents to merely 30.9 percent shooting from the floor. Compare that to 33.1 percent in 2016, 34.7 percent in 2015 and 36.2 percent in 2014.
“Baylor’s a great basketball team,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “Tremendous leadership at point. Big, long two guard that can rise up and shoot it over the top of you. Athleticism everywhere. … Obviously a tremendous basketball team that’s highly skilled, well coached. … In film this morning it was about everything. There’s probably not enough time in the day to deal with all that.”
Now, instead of Davis having to do everything, she has plenty of help.
And right now, they’re hitting on all cylinders.
“We knew we had the depth, but the depth sometimes wasn’t producing on a consistent basis,” Mulkey said. “You’d have one kid that would have a great night, and the next game you wouldn’t hear from them. I think right now, if you’ve seen our three games in the playoffs, they’re all hitting on all cylinders. You hope you can extend that.”