A room full of green T-shirt-wearing fans of the Baylor Lady Bears waited with eager anticipation. Some held signs or posters, others scrawled out the seedings on their printed-out brackets.
When South Carolina was announced as the No. 1 seed in the Stockton (Calif.) Regional, an audible cheer broke out among some of the more clued-in fans. Later, what those people realized immediately was revealed to be true to everyone else – Baylor was designated as the No. 1 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional.
Waco, OKC and Dallas – not a bad travel setup for Lady Bear fans wanting to follow their team to the Final Four.
As for the players, they greeted the news with a cheer, but also a smile and a shrug. OK, back to OKC? Been there, done that. But that’s fine, they said. Now let’s get to work.
“It really didn’t matter where we went,” Baylor senior forward Nina Davis said. “A lot of us kind of did want to go to Cali, just because it’s different scenery. We’ve been in Oklahoma for a lot of different things. But we’re really not focused on where we play. Being able to go to Oklahoma, a lot of our parents can go, the fans. Wherever we go, we just have to come out and play ball.”
Baylor will host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at the Ferrell Center in Waco, a luxury awarded to the top 16 seeds. The top-seeded Lady Bears (30-3) will face 16th-seeded Texas Southern (23-9) in the first round at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. The other matchup will pit eighth-seeded LSU (20-11) against ninth-seeded California (19-13) at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Both games will be televised by ESPN2. The first-round winners will meet Monday at the Ferrell Center a time to be announced, hoping to advance to the Sweet 16 round in Oklahoma City.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey had no complaints with the tournament committee’s bracket.
“It’s good for our fans, it’s good for the kids, I guess,” Mulkey said. “They probably wanted to go somewhere else. But we’re familiar with Oklahoma City, we’ve had wonderful play there and not-so-wonderful play. So hopefully we get there. We’ve got Texas Southern and then LSU or Cal here, so we’ve got to take care of business here. Very, very tough regional we were put in.”
Indeed, several of ESPN’s analysts and writers pegged the Oklahoma City Regional as the toughest on the board. Mississippi State, which was in the running for a No. 1 seed much of the year, is the No. 2 seed in the region. Others in the mix include No. 3 seed Washington and its record-setting guard Kelsey Plum, fourth-seeded Louisville, fifth-seeded Tennessee and sixth-seeded Oklahoma.
“This is a very challenging region,” Mulkey said. “You’ve got some great teams, you’ve got some great coaches. If you go to fill out your bracket in this region, chances are you might get a lot of them wrong because this is really a good region.”
The good news for Baylor is that senior guard Alexis Jones is nearing a return. Mulkey said that Jones practiced at “full speed” on Monday, and added that she’ll be “good to go” for the NCAA tournament.
“She’s one of the top players in the country,” Mulkey said. “We’ve only lost one basketball game without her. I think we’re pretty good with or without her, but when you have all your parts it makes you go a little bit better.”
Soon after the selection show party broke up, Baylor’s assistant coaches dispersed to begin breaking down the Lady Bears’ potential opponents. Texas Southern, champions of the SWAC, is up first on Saturday, followed by either LSU or Cal.
Asked what she knew off the top of her head about that quartet, Mulkey quipped, “I know that LSU has a hell of a shortstop,” referring to her son, Kramer Robertson, a senior shortstop for LSU’s nationally-ranked baseball team.
No matter how tough the competition, if Baylor plays to its full potential, it’s the favorite to reach the Final Four stage in Dallas. But upsets happen, as Baylor well knows. The Lady Bears have encountered an Elite Eight roadblock in each of the past three years, losing to Notre Dame in 2014 and ’15 and Oregon State last year.
Those last two defeats both happened in Oklahoma City.
Coincidence? Hopefully, the Lady Bears said. Motivation? Definitely.
“We’re all human. Being a competitor, when you go to bed at night you think about the losses,” Davis said. “So you think about things you could have done differently on defense or maybe you could have (dived) for that loose ball. So of course you still have plays that run through your mind.
“You just try to do everything you can not to allow it to happen this time. Hopefully you can finally get over the hump.”
BEAR FACTS: All-session tickets for the first and second-round NCAA games in Waco are $35 for reserved, which includes a ticket for both nights and three games. Single-session tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for youth. … This marks Baylor’s 14th straight NCAA tournament appearance, and 16th overall. Baylor has a 39-13 tournament record, all under Mulkey, with NCAA titles in 2005 and 2012. … Texas Southern is making its first trip to the NCAA’s Big Dance.