Alexis Morris doesn’t run from a challenge. She charges it.
That’s what the Baylor guard said when asked about going up against the most talented backcourt she’s faced in her short career in Waco. While Morris answered the question — saying she knows it will be a challenge to contain the likes of Texas’s Brooke McCarty, Ariel Atkins and Lashann Higgs — Kim Mulkey sat to the freshman’s left and grinned.
“I’ve said all along, Texas has the most talent in the league,” the Baylor head coach said. “They have the most depth in the league. Two outstanding guards, actually three outstanding guards, but two senior guards in McCarty and Atkins and, of course, Higgs is probably the most improved player from her freshman year to her junior year. It’s going to be a very good basketball game, I hope.”
A year ago, it was McCarty and Atkins who led the charge for the Longhorns against the Lady Bears. The Texas tandem combined for 72 points in both games against Baylor, accounting for 47.4 percent of the Longhorns’ total offense. The duo also put up 43 percent of Texas’ shot attempts and combined for eight 3-pointers.
And then there’s Higgs. She put up a total of 25 points against the Lady Bears last season, but the Higgs of this year is so much better than last year’s Higgs. In fact, the junior may be the most improved guard, or even player, in the Big 12.
Higgs has seen her minutes per game improve each season in Austin. And her scoring has matched that rise. Higgs averaged 7.2 points in 13.2 minutes as a freshman, 8.0 points in 17.3 minutes as a sophomore and now 15.2 points in 23.8 minutes as a junior.
In UT’s 18 games, one of these three guards has been the Longhorns’ leading scorer 14 times.
Mulkey said that UCLA’s backcourt is the closest comparison to what the Lady Bears will see in Texas, though the coach wasn’t positive since she didn’t make the trip to Los Angeles.
“When you think of (UCLA’s) Jordin Canada, she’s extremely quick and a senior that has a lot of experience,” Mulkey said. “Probably along the lines of that type of athlete, but you’ve got it at all three spots on the perimeter.”
Kristy Wallace agreed.
“I think they’re similar to Jordin Canada, just the athleticism and the experience,” Baylor’s senior guard said. “They have that. Definitely defense is going to be the deciding factor for this game.”
In Baylor’s last 420 games, only three opponents have shot 50 percent or above. Texas was one of those teams, as the Longhorns hit 51.6 percent from the field in Waco last February.
“Defense, guys, is not something you just take lightly,” Mulkey said. “We can score a lot of points. Texas can score a lot of points. Go look at the NCAA stats and the conference stats and see where Baylor is on field goal percentage defense. That tells a story.”
Baylor leads the country and the nation holding opponents to 30.2 percent shooting from the floor. That kind of defense, as Wallace mentioned, is vital to the outcome of Thursday’s contest. Especially against a Texas team that loves to drive and kick.
With so much athleticism and speed on the perimeter, one of those guards will drive with the basketball and either finish at the rim or pass it out to an open teammate. In order to succeed against that in the half court, the Lady Bears must play great one-on-one defense as well as understand the scouting report when it comes to help-side defense.
If the on-ball defender gets beat, the right Lady Bear has to slide over and help while another Lady Bear must help the helper. If this doesn’t happen, the Longhorns can get high percentage looks at the basket.
“Our goal every game is to keep them under 40 percent shooting,” Mulkey said. “When you’ve got youth out there, they have to remember the scouting report. Am I helping and recovering or am I staying on a shooter? Texas can do a little bit of it all. We have to go back to our defensive principles and help each other. Help side is quite important against Texas.”
Power in the post
While the Texas guards proved to be a handful for the Lady Bears a year ago, Kalani Brown was too much to handle for the Longhorns.
The 6-foot-7 center recorded her first 30-plus scoring game at Texas last season as she went off for a career-high 35 points in Baylor’s win on the road. That performance seems to have laid the groundwork for this season, as the junior continues to get better and better.
Brown was named the Naismith Trophy Women’s Player of the Week and the Big 12 Player of the Week after she combined for 58 points in two games last week.
Brown is the national leader in field goal percentage and is coming off a 33-point, 19-rebound performance against Kansas State last Saturday. While Brown is getting all the accolades, she isn’t the only force inside the Longhorns have to deal with on Thursday.
Her frontcourt mate, Lauren Cox, has been in lockstep with Brown all the way. The 6-foot-4 sophomore finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds at Iowa State and matched Brown with 19 rebounds against Kansas State in addition to scoring 16 points.
Against Texas, Brown and Cox will go up against posts their size in 6-foot-4 Jatarie White, 6-foot-4 Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau and 6-foot-3 Joyner Holmes.
“I like playing posts my size because then you don’t have to worry about the little ones coming up and swiping you as much or a triple team,” Brown said. “You can just go one-on-one. I think me and Lauren enjoy that more often.”
After they each pulled down 19 rebounds as Baylor outrebounded the Wildcats, 69-24, their focus now turns to carrying over that performance to Thursday against Texas. The Lady Bears lead the country with a 19.7 rebounding margin. Texas is second at 14.2.
With 16.9 offensive rebounds per game, the Longhorns average 17.1 points (20.2 percent of their offense) off of second-chance points.
“From watching them on film and in games, you’ve got to keep them off the offensive boards and get back in transition defense,” Mulkey said. “If we can do those two things, we stand a chance to stay in the ball game with them.”