OKLAHOMA CITY - Do you know who Nick Foles is?
That was the question the Big 12 Coach of the Year, Kim Mulkey, asked her Baylor team earlier this week. The third-ranked Lady Bears had just won their eighth-straight Big 12 regular season title by running the table in the league for the third time in program history. But while they had already checked off some of their goals for the season, nothing about their current circumstance was ever expected.
Kristy Wallace was supposed to lead Baylor’s charge into the postseason. The senior was putting together a special season, definitely the best of her career. She was doing what she did best, hustling to be the first to a loose ball, when she tore her ACL Monday evening.
“Kristy has put us in this position, along with (Kalani Brown) and (Lauren Cox), to be where we are,” Mulkey said. “Those that can go help us win a Big 12 tournament championship and go help us with a deep run into the NCAA tournament have to go do it.”
Which brings us back to Foles Remember him? Back in mid-December, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was an MVP candidate. He had just set the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season (33) when he went down with an ACL injury. Wentz’s injury happened with three games left in the regular season.
And in stepped Foles.
He became the first quarterback in 16 years to win a championship after starting the season as a backup. Foles was also named the Super Bowl MVP.
“Next man up,” Mulkey said. “If you can ball, you can ball. Let’s go play and do the best that we can.“
This isn’t the first trial that the Lady Bears have come face to face with this season. So far, Baylor has triumphed despite hardship.
“We have been through worse things this year than an ACL,” Mulkey said. “We’ve been through death. We’ve been through death again. We’ve been through an ACL injury with Trinity Oliver. We’ve been through, name ‘em. (Cox) almost went into a coma with her diabetes. We just handle it. We cry, we pick each other up and just keep playing. That’s what we will do under this circumstance.”
Next man up
Foles wasn’t the only football player Mulkey brought up to her team. She also mentioned Tua Tagovailoa. The freshman quarterback stepped in at halftime for Alabama in the National Championship game and led the Tide to another title. Tagovailoa had just thrown 53 passes in his college career as he replaced sophomore Jalen Hurts, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year the season who had a 25-2 record entering the game.
“I visited with them at great length (Wednesday) about Nick Foles and (Tagovailoa),” Mulkey said. “I gave them two or three page card stock of why did Foles do what he did. I had four or five things I shared with them. Now be Nick Foles, Be Tua. Let’s go play. Let’s do it.”
Stepping in at starting point guard for Baylor will be freshman Alexis Morris. She’s played point guard plenty for the Lady Bears this season. Opponents struggle to keep up with her quickness and she has a deadly pull up jumper. Morris was recently named to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team as she averages 8.3 points and 2.6 rebounds in 23.8 minutes per game with a total of 87 assists on the year. Juicy Landrum will be her backup. The sophomore played point guard at La Vega but hadn’t played the position at Baylor until Monday against West Virginia.
“I don’t anticipate Alexis Morris to see anything she has not seen,” Mulkey said. “If they press us, Morris can break the press. We’ve got to make up 12 points with Kristy. Well, Cox give me four more. Kalani give me two more. We’ll make that up. What you will miss with Kristy is maybe that senior that is not afraid to take the big shot. Whereas now you’ve got a freshman and a sophomore that, ‘You take it. Where’s Kalani and Cox?’ That type of thing.”
With a hair toss and an, “I mean,” Kalani Brown was off. The Big 12 Player of the Year had a big grin on her face as she thought back to Baylor’s contest against West Virginia when four different Lady Bears played the whole game and another played a full 30 minutes.
They were gassed, as was evident when Juicy Landrum seemed to celebrate when Natalie Chou checked into the game. But Chou wasn’t replacing Landrum. Instead, the sophomore was subbing in for Dekeiya Cohen so the senior could receive an ovation from the home crowd.
Baylor had timeouts to use down the stretch, and Brown said the players talked about calling one just to get a breather.
“I definitely said if we’re all tired, like all five of us, we were all going to call it, because (Mulkey) can’t get mad if we just all call it,” Brown said. “No one wanted to be singled out. (Mulkey) would just say, ‘Who called the timeout?’ And we’d all just look at one person, you know. I was like, ‘Do we all need one because I can call it. Y’all let me know.”
Her grin spread wider across her face as Brown mentioned, “It goes back to the team chemistry. See, we got each other’s backs.”
That chemistry has been mentioned often. These Lady Bears are not only close on the court, they also cheer for each other (as is evident when those on the bench cheer for their teammates on the floor), but also off the court. Mulkey has mentioned a few times that with only 10 on the roster, the entire team can sit together at one table at team meals.
It’s this special connection that has gotten Baylor through such a trying year. And it’s what will be relied upon during this postseason stretch without Wallace.
“I feel like Kristy has also played a big part in being our Energizer Bunny,” Brown said. “Our team chemistry, we definitely love playing with each other on and off the court. I think that played a big part as well. We’re going to need each other now more than ever. We need to stick together and keep playing together. We’ve been gelling well, and that’s what’s kept us so successful. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”
According to Sports Illustrated, after the win in Los Angeles when Wentz suffered his injury, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said to his teammates, “But we’ve come too far and we aren’t going to stop now.”
The Lady Bears have come too far. Despite hardship after hardship, Baylor won the Big 12, went undefeated through league play and is currently third in the country with a 28-1 record.
And they’re not going to stop now.