The Baylor Lady Bears are headed for the Caribbean this Thanksgiving weekend and they intend to have some fun.
But it will also be a test for the defending national champions as their competition level jumps up. Second-ranked Baylor (5-0) will play two ranked foes in three games at the U.S. Virgin Island Paradise Jam.
The Lady Bears are set to face Washington State (4-0) on Thursday, followed by No. 17 Indiana (4-0) on Friday and No. 5 South Carolina (6-0) on Saturday.
The Thursday and Friday games will each be at 4:45 p.m., then the showdown with the Gamecocks is scheduled for 7 p.m on Saturday.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said she doesn’t know if preseason All-American forward Lauren Cox will be available for the event. Cox has missed the last three games while resting a stress reaction in her right foot.
“She is wanting to play, obviously,” Mulkey said on Monday. “That doesn’t surprise me. I will play her when (the team medical staff) tap me on the shoulder and say she can get minutes and play. I can’t sit there and prepare as if I have her. She will be with us and if she can give us some minutes in any of those games, I know we certainly welcome it.”
While Mulkey was addressing the status of Cox’s injury, Lady Bears junior guard DiDi Richards was sitting beside the coach and crossing her fingers on both hands. Richards is clearly ready to have her senior forward teammate back on the court.
“You’re losing someone that is not only a vocal leader, but her presence on the court is so needed,” Richards said about Cox. “You’re yearning for someone else to be that presence.”
Last season, Richards’ role was to guard the opponent’s best offensive player and clean up second-chance and transition baskets.
But now, especially with Cox temporarily sidelined, the junior guard is doing a little bit of everything.
In the last two games, Richards has 14 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds, five blocks and four steals.
Meanwhile, sophomore forwards NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo have controlled the paint. Smith leads No. 2-ranked Baylor in scoring with 17.6 points per game and Egbo is right behind her with 15.4. Together they average 16.2 rebounds.
Mulkey said all of the Lady Bears opponents in the Paradise Jam can crash the boards, so her team will have to make that a group effort.
“I can’t ask Queen and NaLyssa as posts to do it all,” Mulkey said. “We’ve got to get it from all positions. If you know anything about the teams we’re getting ready to play, they’re obviously rebounding teams.”
Saturday’s game will feature an added subplot as Baylor graduate transfer point guard Te’a Cooper will be facing her former team. Cooper led South Carolina in scoring with 11.9 points per game and helped the Gamecocks reach the Sweet 16 last season.
“I would think (Cooper) wants to do really well and we want her to do really well,” Mulkey said. “But she can’t go and all of the sudden think that game is the most important game of the year. Because it’s not, no matter what happens.”
Although Baylor won’t be playing top-ranked Oregon in the event, the Ducks are also headed for the Paradise Jam. Oregon will play Oklahoma State, Texas-Arlington and No. 8 Louisville.