Bill Fennelly thinks the game is lost before it even starts some times. For Iowa State, according to the head coach, that happens most often against Baylor. Fennelly’s Cyclones opened up Wednesday night’s contest against the Lady Bears shooting 1-for-17 from the floor, the lowest scoring quarter in Baylor history by a Big 12 opponent.
“I think the Baylor on the front of their jerseys is kind of intimidating,” Fennelly said.
Iowa State’s first play of the night, a slide 3-pointer, was blocked by Lauren Cox who finished the game with a career best nine rejections. That set the tone for the rest of the game.
It’s how No. 4 Baylor operates. This program, among the upper echelon of women’s college hoops across the country, hasn’t gotten there behind the play of its offense. Not that the offense isn’t good. Right now, the Lady Bears lead the country in scoring offense with 89.5 points per game and are second with a 52.1 field goal percentage.
The offense is there at every position. Four different Lady Bears are in the top 30 in scoring in the Big 12. Baylor dominates the paint and shoots to kill from the 3-point line.
While those offensive numbers can fluctuate as the melody of this Lady Bear program, the bass line, or sturdy foundation on which the melody rides, is Baylor’s defense.
“We take a lot of pride in defense,” senior Dekeiya Cohen said. “It’s something that we work on almost every day. We know that Coach Mulkey takes a lot of pride in defense also. She instills in us that you have to go out there, have heart and just defend people, guard people, not let them get the best of you.”
This isn’t a new thing for Baylor. In 604 of 618 games under head coach Kim Mulkey, the Lady Bears have held their opponent at or below 50 percent shooting from the floor. In Baylor’s last 419 games, only three opponents have shot 50 percent or above, the most recent being Texas (.516) on Feb. 6, 2017.
Currently, the Lady Bears are limiting their opposition to 30.1 percent from the floor, a statistic that’s tops in the country. In Big 12 play alone, Baylor’s opponents are shooting 29.4 percent. Baylor has held every Big 12 opponent to an average of .103 below their overall field goal percentage. Through 17 games, the Lady Bears have held 12 opponents to 10 points or less in a quarter 20 times this season.
Baylor has also held every opponent to at or below their scoring average. The Lady Bears, on average, have held their opposition to 18 points below their average and Big 12 opponents to 20.4 points below their average.
“I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face — we guard people,” Mulkey said. “Our field goal percentage defense tells a story. We can score a lot of points. We score at all positions. But so do a lot of other teams. I think what separates winners and losers in the tight games is who plays the best defense. If you look at our defensive stats, I think we’re trying our best to be very tough defensively.”
Before even looking at stats and different ways to succeed defensively, the first thing that stands out to anyone who watched Baylor play is the looming presence of Cox and Kalani Brown inside. The 6-foot-4 sophomore forward and 6-foot-7 junior center combine for 63 blocks on the year. That’s four less than Texas and Kansas and nearly 20 more than Oklahoma State.
Their presence inside can force opponents to shoot more jump shots instead of driving the lane with the fear of impending rejection.
But it’s more than Cox and Brown inside. With the starters in the game, opposing point guards have to take on 5-foot-11 Kristy Wallace as 6-foot-1 Natalie Chou and 6-foot-2 Cohen flank the wings.
“They’re a great defensive team,” Iowa State’s Bridget Carleton said. “When you have two girls that are very tall, with their wingspan and they’re able to block shots like that, it’s hard to get into the paint and kind of draw the defenders in and look for kickouts. So, that’s difficult. Then their guards are so athletic. All-around they’re such a good defensive team.”
With the height and athleticism at every position, Baylor not only makes it tough to put up a shot each possession but also makes it nearly impossible to get extra looks at the basket.
On the season, the Lady Bears have pulled down 81 percent of their opponent’s missed shots. Especially in the Big 12, Baylor has held four opponents to fewer shot attempts than their average.
“Rebounding is one of the things that Coach really focuses on along with defense,” Brown said. “She’s a defensive coach, so it’s one of the first things we do in practice. Securing a rebound is how we start a break, how we get out to those quick starts, so it’s very important.”
It’s multiple factors that go into not only playing sound defense but also dominating that end of the floor. And the consistency with which the Lady Bears defend has led to more offense. And with the melody of a high-powered bouncing off the constant baseline of shut down defense, the composition comes out sweetly to the tune of the highest average margin of victory in the country.