Bundled up in sweats and jackets, the Baylor Lady Bears boarded their flight to Kansas on Wednesday afternoon. They returned to the gym on Christmas Day after some holiday time with their families, and now, the Baylor players and coaches are focused on Thursday evening’s Big 12 opener at Kansas State.

“I know it’s cold, I’m cold here,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “It’s the second half of our schedule. There are four parts to it, and it’s probably without a doubt the most important part of our season. I’ve always said that conference play is much more important than preseason. It’s much more important than the conference tournament.

“The most important, obviously, is the NCAA. We head to Manhattan with a young team. … And it will be an interesting road trip because I’m going to be curious to see how they handle being scouted as tight as they will have been scouted. Because every team now is capable of beating you.”

There’s no question that the intensity of play ratchets up once Big 12 action tips off. And that kind of play is something that can’t be taught, the Lady Bears said.

“Definitely, experience is a big thing,” senior guard Kristy Wallace said. “Because we’re such a young team we’re going to have to stay focused and be ready when the time comes. It’s a tough ask, but I think we’re capable and we can do this.”

This will be the third year in the last five that the Lady Bears and Wildcats have opened Big 12 play against each other. Overall, Baylor owns a 30-8 advantage in the series over Kansas State, including the last 26 games straight.

“They’re going to get a true taste of a zone defense,” Mulkey said. “Kansas State, more so than anybody in our league, is committed to zone defense. And we’ve prepared for it. We had a great holiday. Everybody had five or six days off and came back and went two-a-days a little bit. So, we know what we face.”

The Wildcats are led by junior guard Kayla Goth, who averages 16.5 points per game as well as a Big 12 leading 6.6 assists per contest. Two more Wildcats are putting up double figures – sophomore forward Peyton Williams with 12.3 and freshman guard Rachel Ranke with 12.5.

“They lost some great seniors in (Breanna) Lewis, a big presence in the paint,” Mulkey said. “They’re young, as well. They have four freshmen that play for them coming off the bench. But, they’ve got a couple seniors and a couple kids that were waiting for their opportunity to play. You’re going to see the zone, obviously, is a big part of what (coach Jeff Mittie) does. And then the 3-point shooting is a big part of what he does, and they still do that.”

When it comes to attacking that zone defense, it’s all about getting post touches for Baylor. Whether or not the Wildcats will pack the paint against the Lady Bears and force Baylor to shoot more outside shots will be known once the game begins. But for now, Mulkey has her group ready.

“It’s great if you’re hitting from the perimeter, but if you don’t have post touches you’re not going to win,” Mulkey said. “You have to win on the defensive end of the floor when you go on the road. Our defense has to be good. Our man-to-man defense has to be alert to the number of 3-point shooters they have. They don’t have the post game that we have.

“So, it’s going to be a game where I’m really going to learn a lot about our team, because, yes, we’ve played some tough ones in non-conference, but it just goes up a whole ‘nother level.”

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