When the NCAA tournament comes around each year for women’s basketball, Baylor is almost always listed as one of the favorites.
The Lady Bears are on the short list of the perennial powers in the sport and earned the distinction of becoming the first team ever to win 40 games and go undefeated when they claimed the national championship in 2012.
But Baylor’s status wasn’t always so lofty. It took a gritty group of underdogs to put them on the map, and that’s just what the 2005 team did with an improbable run through the tournament that culminated with an 84-62 rout of Michigan State in the championship game.
Ten years later, nearly all of the Lady Bears from that team will be on hand Saturday at the Ferrell Center. They’ll be honored at halftime of Baylor’s game against Oklahoma State, which tips off at 11 a.m.
“Even to this day, to say I’m a national champion, it’s hard for people to relate because so few people have that title,” said Chameka Scott, a junior guard in 2005. “I’m looking forward to getting back around my teammates and getting that vibe again.”
Scott, Steffanie Blackmon, Jordan Davis, Chenelle Fox, Melanie Hamerly Schlemmer, Monique Jones, Emily Niemann Nikoski, Angela Tisdale, Chelsea Whitaker, Latoya Wyatt and Sophia Young-Malcolm are expected to be in attendance. Abiola Wabara won’t be there, as she “had to do something in Italy,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said.
The 2005 breakthrough started with a devastating finish to 2004.
Baylor was in its first-ever Sweet 16 and played powerhouse Tennessee to a tied game in the final seconds. While fighting for a loose ball off of a rebound, Baylor’s Jessika Stratton was called for a foul with two-tenths of a second remaining.
Tennessee’s Tasha Butts went to the line and drained two free throws that proved to be the difference in a 71-69 decision, and both coaches — Baylor’s Mulkey and Tennessee’s Pat Summit — lamented after the game how the outcome came about.
A loss like that can either tear a team apart or bring it together, and the Lady Bears chose the latter route. They literally wore their disappointment as motivation to come back in 2005 with a hardended edge.
“I just remember what the girls wore on their workout shirts that summer, and it was ‘.2,’ to remind them of how close they were but yet how far away they were,” Mulkey said. “The focus of that team, the team chemistry was outstanding.”
In what turned out to be a national semifinal preview in more ways than one, Baylor dropped its season opener to No. 3 LSU, 71-70, but it rallied from down by as much as 21 and had the ball with a chance to win in the final seconds.
“In the very first game against LSU, we lost by one point,” Scott said. “It was heartbreaking, but at the same time, in the locker room we’re thinking, ‘We’re pretty good.’”
Baylor only experienced losing two more times that season, a triple-overtime setback against Nebraska, 103-99, on the road, and a 69-55 road defeat against Texas.
The Lady Bears won their last 11 games of the regular season, which concluded with a 79-69 victory over Texas Tech that clinched their first-ever Big 12 outright regular season crown.
One week later, Baylor found itself fighting for its life in the conference tournament against the same Texas Tech team, but senior guard Chelsea Whitaker came through with a driving layup with 2.1 seconds left to give her team a 58-57 win. The Lady Bears brought home the title by downing Kansas State, 68-55, two days later.
Whether Whitaker had made the shot against Texas Tech, Baylor was going to be in the NCAA tournament. But she said that game was indicative of the team’s toughness in difficult situations.
“We saw ourselves winning big games and doing things the year before we wouldn’t have been able to handle,” Whitaker said. “. . . The coaches have said it before, but they didn’t have to tell us much. We took care of each other and held each other accountable. We had great leadership and people who wanted to follow great leadership.”
Baylor ended up with the No. 2 seed in the Tempe Regional, and it made quick work of its first two opponents in No. 15 Illinois State (91-70) and No. 10 Oregon (69-46).
That put the Lady Bears back in the Sweet 16, but the outcome was different this time. They held off a challenge from No. 3 Minnesota for a 64-57 win, and they closed the Elite Eight against No. 1 North Carolina on a 12-2 run to reach the Final Four for the first time.
Waiting for Baylor was a familiar foe and another No. 1 seed in LSU — the tournament’s overall top seed — and as they had in the season opener, things went badly for the Lady Bears from the start. They fell behind 24-9, and Mulkey had a decision to make.
She’s a man-to-man coach, but employed a 3-2 zone that befuddled the Lady Tigers and drew Baylor back even by halftime.
The Lady Bears finally went ahead to stay on Whitaker’s two free throws with 6:17 to go en route to a 68-57 victory.
“They handled it like they’d been there before, which was amazing because none of them had,” Mulkey said. “I was the only one on that bench who had ever been to (a Final Four), and you can’t just tell somebody how to respond and how it’s going to be. They have to experience it for themselves. After that, we were on such an emotional high. Whoever we played in the final, we were going to beat them because the kids were sky high.”
The Lady Bears knew they were ready for the championship game, but there was so much they had to do in the 48-hour window after the semifinals — from the extra media demands to trying to figure out how to handle another good team.
“You try and stay as calm as you possibly can and not think so much about the end result, but live in the moment and take it one play at a time,” said Young, who married Jermaine Malcolm earlier this year. “You look too far in the future, you forget what’s actually happening. But in that 48-hour window, you had to have fun and relax.”
It ended up being Michigan State, a top seed in its own right, that got in the way, and the Lady Bears ran them over.
Young had 26 points to close out a Most Outstanding Player performance, and Niemann drilled five 3-pointers as Baylor completed a turnaround from being 7-20 the season before Mulkey arrived in 2000 to winning the title with a 33-3 record and 20-game winning streak to close the campaign.
It also came two years after a scandal in the men’s basketball program that involved a cover-up after a former player was killed by a teammate.
“The tournament was just surreal,” Young said. “It was at a time when Baylor was going through a rough stage and patch, so winning the championship at that time was just big for Baylor itself and particularly for me as a player. That championship allowed me to get seen with the WNBA, and it was one of those moments you can’t believe really happened.”
Young was the star of that team, but it was a team full of players who contributed in a number of ways. Mulkey said Scott was the defensive stopper after not being able to get off the bench her first couple of seasons at Baylor. Jordan Davis could bust a zone with a big 3-pointer, Wabara was a strong player who didn’t back down, Steffanie Blackmon did all the work while Young received the publicity, Niemann was the purest shooter she’s ever coached, and Whitaker was the general who directed traffic and was the Lady Bears’ little engine.
“We were a pretty close group, and as with any college team you’re spending the majority of every day together for four years, you get to know people on a different level,” Scott said. “You know everything about each other, and then you fast forward 10 years and you have to catch up. I think the best memories were all the road trips and stuff we shared as a team off the court. The memories of the games and stats, you kind of forget over the years, but it’s the camaraderie and memories we have as teammates that last.”