Long before the spirit towels were nestled into their seats, before the parking lot transformed into an every-minivan-for-themselves free-for-all, before WNBA head coach Bill Laimbeer elbowed his way to his seat among the scouts, the outcome was already decided.
This was a win. A big one.
Not for the teams involved, mind you. Oh, of course it means something to Baylor, just as it would have meant something to Connecticut. But those teams carry very specific, very selfish (selfish in a good way) goals.
No, this was a win for basketball. This was good for the game.
Again, I’m not trying to take away from the Lady Bears’ monumental, breakthrough triumph. Good for them. It was their first win over a No. 1 team in program history, and it was well-earned.
But you can’t get your groove on unless you first step onto the dance floor. Or, to put it another way, you can’t get an opportunity for such a win unless you first schedule the game.
Basketball needs these kinds of games. Not men’s basketball, not women’s basketball. Just basketball, period.
“It’s good for women’s basketball to have this type of environment,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said, following the Lady Bears’ 68-57 victory. “Look guys, that was a big-time atmosphere. It reminded me of the old days.”
At one point, in the waning minutes, as the towel-waving fans hit a resounding crescendo and it felt as though that golden Ferrell Center lid was about to pop, I looked around and thought, man, this is what college basketball is supposed to feel like.
Fortunately, this won’t be the last time that feeling visits Waco. Spoiler alert – déjà vu is coming. In October, the schools announced that they’d continue the series through the 2020-21 season. Baylor will travel to Connecticut next year, then the Huskies will return to Waco the following season.
A sold-out crowd of 10,284 on their feet. Plenty of big plays. Plenty of chest bumps, fist pumps and flat-out screams of joy. The Lady Bears exerted their will to topple mighty Connecticut at the Ferrell Center.
That’s a marvelous first step. Here’s a better one – extend the series through the next decade. Make it as much an annual event as paying your taxes. They broker college football contracts for a jillion years in advance, what’s to prevent doing the same in basketball?
“Honestly, if we’re playing them next year there and they come back the next year, I can only live in the moment,” said Mulkey, when asked if she’d like to play UConn every year. “When you’ve been doing this as long as (UConn coach Geno Auriemma) has and as long as I have, you can’t sign things for 10 and 15 years, because you don’t know how long you’ll be in the business.”
Oh, come on. Insert your own eye roll here. Here’s another spoiler alert – Kim can coach at Baylor as long as she pleases, assuming her health holds up. Same goes for Geno at UConn. They’ve earned their ticket. Nobody is slipping a pink slip under their office doors.
These types of heavyweight clashes have long-reaching ripple effects. They impact fan support, they impact recruiting, they probably even impact donor giving. And, then, for the teams themselves, these games contain inherent benefits, whether you’re on the winning or the losing side.
No offense to the Rio Grande Valleys and Morehead States of the world, but a game against UConn is going to teach you much more about yourself than those opponents.
Beyond that, they’re just fun. Fun for the fans, which is why the game produced the program’s first sellout since 2016. Fun for the TV viewers watching on ESPN. Even fun for those of us on press row, with no dog in the fight. We like watching good ball too, you know. We like having to plug our ears because of the crowd’s genuine screeching, and not because of some artificially-produced, eardrum-bleeding, chest-thumping bass.
In the immediate moments after the game, Mulkey downplayed the impact of the win. She’d already turned her attention to Friday’s practice, as Baylor’s Big 12 opener at Texas Tech awaits on Sunday.
“We will enjoy this, and they should enjoy it, but you can’t overemphasize it. You just can’t,” she said.
That’s why she wins. When you’re in the midst of the battle, you’ve got to stay focused on the next target in front of you, and not the one you just terminated.
But games like Thursday’s UConn-Baylor duel? That’s why basketball wins.
“Connecticut gets everybody’s best shot. They don’t lose much. We don’t lose much,” Mulkey said. “When you can do it year after year after year taking people’s best shots, and you have an opportunity to play each other, it’s good for women’s basketball.”
Play it again, ma’am.