In 1982, one program was playing its first season of women’s basketball while another was changing the game.
Texas Southern played its first season in 1982 and compiled a 26-12 record.
In the 35 years since then, the Lady Tigers hadn’t put up 20 wins in a single season or advanced to the NCAA Tournament ever.
“I just want to say this is a great opportunity for all of us,” junior Nycolle Smith said. “I think this is a place where we all strive to be. We’ve all wanted to be here. I know I wanted to be here my entire life, and just coming to Baylor, like I said, it’s just a blessing. I’m taking it all in, embracing it all, and just want to have fun.”
As Smith and her teammates answered questions from the media, they looked around the women’s basketball practice gym.
These young Lady Tigers – Texas Southern has only one senior on the roster — could see Baylor’s history as national championship, Big 12 title and all-American banners hang on the walls.
“You know, it can be overwhelming,” Texas Southern coach Johnetta Hayes-Perry said. “I’m not sure if they will say that, but it can be overwhelming. It’s overwhelming, and it’s a great honor for them to be here, to have the opportunity to play a Baylor team. We had a few teams in our conference play them this year, as well, but to be here in the moment now is what we are looking forward for, getting on the court tomorrow.”
Kim Mulkey was on that ’82 Louisiana Tech squad that went 35-1 en route to a national championship.
She’s developed the Baylor Lady Bears into a perennial powerhouse and hopes to get her team back to the Final Four for the first time since the magical 40-0 national championship season in 2012.
“I hope we’re as excited as they are because it doesn’t get old,” the Baylor coach said. “We’re very blessed at Baylor that women’s basketball is a priority.”
In order over the hump of Elite Eight exits the past three seasons, Baylor has to take care of business at home first.
The Lady Bears host Texas Southern at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“They understand that it is a privilege to be selected to host the first and second round, but that privilege came from what you did all year,” Mulkey said. “They don’t just give it to you. … We’re in a part of the country where women’s basketball is valued, and people on fixed incomes, people who have money, they make sure that they support these players, and it does matter in women’s basketball.”
Texas Southern comes into the tournament with a 23-9 overall record (14-4 SWAC). The Lady Tigers are led by All-SWAC First-Team guard and SWAC Tournament Most Valuable Player Joyce Kennerson, who is tied for the league lead in scoring at 18.3 points per game and has scored 20 or more points in 11 of TSU’s last 15 games — during which the Lady Tigers have posted a 12-3 record, including tournament play.
“The key is stopping her in transition, staying in front of her, not letting her blow past us, and not get easy lay-ups to the rim,” senior Alexis Jones said.
Alongside Kennerson are Artavia Ford (10.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg), 3-point shooter Kaitlyn Palmer (9.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and freshman Chynna Ewing (7.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg), who earned All-Tournament recognition.
The Lady Tigers also placed in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense.
But Texas Southern hasn’t faced a team as big as Baylor.
The Lady Tigers are one of the biggest teams in the SWAC with their tallest player maxing out at 6-foot-4.
They’ll go up against the likes of Lauren Cox and Beatrice Mompremier at 6-foot-4, along with Kalani Brown at 6-foot-7.
Seven of Baylor’s 13 players are at least 6-foot.
“I don’t think they see what I see,” Hayes-Perry said. “They see another team. I see 6-foot-6”. I see 6-foot-5. And as a player, I’ve played against it, but I also stand 6-foot-4. For my 5-foot-5 point guard, I don’t think that she’s going to make an adjustment early. I think she’s just going to play her game the way she knows how and then see what happens.”
And that’s the coach’s message to all of her players.
Be who they are. Don’t panic and try to recreate the wheel.
So Hayes-Perry said her team will stretch the floor on offense, play a little wider than they usually play, to open up more driving lanes and make the help-side rotation a bit further than it would be at normal spacing.
“I’m sure they’ll spread the floor on us, and our post will have to guard smaller players,” Mulkey said. “They like to run. Kennerson and Palmer shoot a lot of threes. We see that a lot in our league, so we’ll be prepared.”
The Lady Bears are also pretty good behind the arch.
They lead the country in 3-point field goal percentage at 40.6 percent.
Jones leads the charge for Baylor hitting at a 42.1 percent clip.
After missing the last five games due to injury, Jones is back.
“I’m not sure I’ll start her, but she’s good to go,” Mulkey said. “There is no limit on how many minutes. I think that will just be the flow of the game. She’ll play both point guard and two (shooting guard), which helps Kristy (Wallace).”
Added Jones: “I’m feeling a lot better, and I’m excited to get back out there on the court. It’s me, Nina (Davis), KK (Khadijiah Cave) and (Alexis) Prince’s last go-around. I’m just happy and blessed that I’m able to come back and play again.”
For those four seniors, it’s their final contest – or contests – in the Ferrell Center.
“Just knowing in the back of my mind that it’s the last go-around,” Davis said. “It’s my last two games in the Ferrell Center to play in front of these fans that have been amazing the four years I’ve been here. We just want to go out here and play hard and get these two wins in front of them because we owe a lot of credit to them. They travel across the country and support us whatever we do.”