AUSTIN – Despite lacking one of its top guns, No. 4 Baylor showed that it still has plenty of firepower.
Baylor lost senior star Alexis Jones to a knee injury early in the first half. But the Lady Bears didn’t buckle in her absence.
Behind a career-high 35 points from sophomore Kalani Brown, Baylor made a spirited second-half comeback to turn back Texas, 70-67, before a season-high crowd of 7,103 at the Frank Erwin Center on Monday night.
Not only did Baylor (26-2, 15-1) gain some payback for a loss to Texas two weeks ago in Waco, but the Lady Bears reclaimed the lead in the Big 12 standings in the process. Baylor now holds a one-game edge over Texas (21-6, 14-2) with two games to play.
“Everybody wanted to say that we’re stale food and there’s a new sheriff in town, look guys, when you’re a championship program you go down fighting,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I thought the game was very good. Thought it was good for television, good for our conference, good for both schools.”
Baylor suffered a tough blow when Jones departed the game in the first half with a knee injury. Mulkey said that the initial diagnosis appeared to be a bone bruise, but that Jones would undergo an MRI on Tuesday.
Yet even shorthanded, the depth on Baylor’s bench stretches longer than the traffic in downtown Austin. Brown stepped up with the game of her young life, scoring a career-best 35 on 10-of-12 shooting from the floor and 15-of-16 from the line. She also snatched 13 rebounds.
“What do you say about this big girl? She’s just a stud in there tonight,” Mulkey said. “She’s a sophomore, she’s 6-7, she’s lost weight, she’s our go-to girl, she’s a presence in there. Everything we do revolves around her. She big free throws, she hit the jumper at the foul line, she didn’t get in foul trouble, she moved her feet. Got any more things I need to say?”
Baylor also received some inspired fourth-quarter contributions from the likes of junior forward Dekeiya Cohen and freshman forward Lauren Cox.
Baylor trailed by 11 at halftime and by seven points entering the fourth quarter, but rallied by “gutting it out,” Mulkey said.
Baylor tied the game at 52 on a backdoor cut and layup from Cohen with 5:57 to play. And the Lady Bears just kept coming, pushing out to a 63-56 lead when Brown produced a putback while drawing a foul with 2:15 to go.
Texas, which seemed in complete control for the first three quarters, still made things plenty dramatic, twice pulling to within three points in the final two minutes behind the heady play of always-dangerous guard Brooke McCarty (16 points). The Longhorns gave themselves a chance to extend the game to overtime when they stole a Baylor inbounds pass with 6.1 seconds to go and zipped the ball downcourt to McCarty, but the guard’s final 3-point attempt bounced harmlessly off the rim.
The Lady Bears trailed by 11 points at the halftime break, after a ragged shooting performance in which they hit just 25.9 percent of their attempts. They felt as if they could just connect on some of those shots, they could put themselves right back in the thick of the game.
“I talked to them about missing wide-open layups, about second-chance points that Texas was getting,” Mulkey said. “That’s really all I talked to them about. I didn’t say it real nicely.”
In the teams’ first meeting two weeks ago in Waco, the Lady Bears felt as though they started the game lethargically, saying, “we let Texas put us on our heels.” Energy wasn’t an issue for Baylor in the rematch. From the jump, the Lady Bears looked to push the tempo whenever they got the ball. They just struggled to finish shots.
Mulkey showed her own fiery passion when she disputed an offensive foul call against her team at the 7:04 mark of the first quarter. Official Amy Bonner quickly hit Mulkey with a technical foul.
Asked if that was the earliest in a game that she’d ever drawn a technical, Mulkey said, “Yeah, and I meant to get it. Make sure when you get one, get your money’s worth. Get it early, set the tone. I didn’t want to watch that flopping all game.”
Texas took a 7-2 lead after center Kelsi Lang dropped in a 19-foot jumper. Baylor fought back to 7-6 on consecutive buckets from Brown, who carved out deep post position before taking a lob pass from Kristy Wallace for a chip-shot layup.
But such bunnies weren’t always so easy for Baylor. The Lady Bears had numerous chances at either driving layups or point-blank putbacks that rolled off the rim instead of falling.
Texas took an 18-10 lead after one quarter, following a sweet step-back jumper from guard McCarty. The Longhorns didn’t relent in the second quarter, using a turnaround and a rolling layup from Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau just before halftime to extend to a double-digit halftime gap.
But Texas had no answer for Brown in the second half, and the Lady Bears made the plays it needed down the stretch.
“I was just demanding the ball, period,” Brown said. “Coach said it was important for me to be a presence in there, offensively and defensively. That’s just what I was doing. I just had to do what Coach told me.”
Following McCarty’s final miss, the Lady Bears erupted in celebration, overwhelmed in the satisfaction of a hard-fought win.
“Guys, that was a gutsy performance. Our team gutted it out. I’m proud of them,” Mulkey said.
Baylor will host Texas Tech in its final home game Saturday, then close the regular season next Monday at Oklahoma.