The end of the season was disappointing.
Multiple Lady Bears described it as such, as did coach Kim Mulkey, as the hope of advancing to the Final Four were dimmed by each of the 41 points Morgan William scored in last Sunday’s Elite Eight contest in Oklahoma City.
“I think when (the seniors) came to Baylor, they wanted to go to a Final Four,” Mulkey said. “I think anybody that comes to Baylor wants to go to a Final Four. We’ve set the bar that high.”
It’s because of that standard that towers high above most other programs in the country that being one of the final eight women’s basketball teams in the country left standing wasn’t enough for Baylor. This, despite being one of just seven programs across the country to advance to the NCAA tournament for at least 14 consecutive seasons.
As Mulkey put it, the Lady Bears have to keep “feeding that monster” they started 17 years ago.
This season’s squad was a Final Four-caliber team.
It wasn’t just people inside the Baylor program that thought so, and it wasn’t just because the Final Four would be played less than 100 miles away in the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
“They’re supposed to go to the Final Four,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “They’re a legit national championship contender.”
The Lady Bears led the country in scoring margin (33.2 points) – including their historic 89-point rout of Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA tournament – behind a balanced offense and shutdown defense.
While the Lady Bear defense held opponents to 56.3 points per game, only two teams ever reached 80 against Baylor – Texas and Mississippi State.
Both teams were led offensively by players listed at 5-foot-5 or smaller in Brooke McCarty (Texas) and William (Mississippi State).
“It came down to William,” Nina Davis said after the Elite Eight. “You’re not going to win a game when somebody scores 41 points. So it wasn’t the offensive end, it was more of the defensive end.”
And the senior’s words defined most of the season, as the Baylor offense finished with the third-highest point totals in program history (3,312) behind the 1976-77 (3,699) and 1977-78 (3,685) BU squads.
Baylor assisted on 64 percent of its buckets with a program-best 808 assists as four different Lady Bears averaged in the double figures.
That efficiency stemmed from a few things – making the extra pass from a good shot to a great shot as well as the Lady Bears having plenty of shooters on the floor as the team combined to make 49.8 percent of its shots.
But the main contribution to Baylor’s offense this season came from Kalani Brown.
After gaining confidence her freshman season, Brown blossomed as a sophomore.
The 6-foot-7 post drastically improved across the stat sheet to lead Baylor with 15.4 points per game off 67.9 percent shooting while pulling down 8.2 rebounds per game and blocking a total of 73 shots in 21.4 minutes per contest.
Compare those figures to her freshman year – 9.3 points per game, 60.3 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds per game, 50 blocked shots in 14.4 minutes per contest.
“I think Kalani, from her freshman year to her sophomore year, is a completely different presence in the paint for us both offensively and defensively,” Mulkey said. “I think she worked extremely hard in the summer to be able to play for longer periods of time. I think everything that we really do goes through Kalani.”
When Brown caught the ball inside this season, the defense would collapse in a bit, and sometimes even bring the double team.
And all that attention to the improved Brown inside opened up everyone else on the floor for the Lady Bears.
“Those kids get overlooked,” Mulkey said. “They’re shooting unbelievable from the three. It’s because of the big guys that they’re able to get those open looks.”
After the loss to Mississippi State in the Elite Eight, Mulkey wasn’t pleased with a few things.
One of them was the limited number of times Baylor got the ball inside to Brown.
With Brown, Beatrice Mompremier and Lauren Cox returning for the Lady Bears the focus for the upcoming season will once again be playing from the inside out.
“They’re as good as any bigs in the country,” Mulkey said. “But we have to fix this turnover problem. We got to fix, I guess you’d say, point guard play.”
With the departure of Niya Johnson after the 2015-16 campaign, Kristy Wallace slid over to the point guard position for the Lady Bears.
The junior finished with 208 assists and 80 turnovers on the year.
“If you’ll remember, last year, she was our off guard,” Mulkey said. “She’s really kind of in a new position, but a comfortable position, because that’s what she plays back home.”
This top class – ranked fourth by ESPN HoopGurlz – will join a group of returners from one of the deepest Baylor teams in program history.
No Lady Bear averaged 30 minutes per game as Prince and Wallace finished with the two highest of 28.7 and 28.2.
Ten players finished with at least 12.7 minutes played per game, while every Big 12 team had at least one player average at least 29.2 minutes per contest.
“My biggest challenge as a coach this year was this much talent, this much depth, to make sure I have the right people on the floor at the right time, combinations on the floor,” Mulkey said. “Look, I can only start five. I’ve got more than that that can start.”
Nine players are expected to return next season for Baylor and will need to step up as the seniors combined for 46.7 percent of Baylor’s total points this season.
Underclassmen like Brown, Mompremier, Cox and Chou each had big games this season.
But for freshmen Cox and Chou, they will look to become more consistent as sophomores.
With all the playing time they received this season, that duo has the potential to make the kinds of strides Brown and Mompremier made entering their sophomore campaigns.
“There is no substitute for experience,” Mulkey said. “There is just no substitute for it.”