In 2004, Baylor opened the season against LSU in Austin, Texas in the Tip Off Classic. I remember sitting in Dock's and watching the game on the big screen. Baylor fell behind by as much as 21 and I felt that this was not a good sign for the year. Baylor ended up battling back and lost on a last second shot by Seimone Augustus.
Last year, we all remember when we played Kentucky. The ground was frozen, the players were hot. We threw everything at Kentucky, including the kitchen sink, and came away the loser after a 4OT game that set the NCAA records for points in a game.
Both of these games were rough starts to the season. Both games helped the team to grow and mature early in the season and served as an important lesson in successful years. Both teams got to exact their revenge in the NCAA tournament, when it really mattered.
Baylor came out strong in this game. Both teams were playing solid defense, but Baylor's D was stifling. It seemed like nothing Kentucky put in the air would go into the hoop. When Kentucky was able to make a shot, it was from the outside and there was a sea of black underneath. On offense, Baylor was able to get the ball underneath and make nice shots. Thanks to solid team play, the team went into the half with a ten point lead.
Unfortunately, a game does last for two halves (or 4 quarters...), and Kentucky made the necessary adjustments at halftime. While Baylor scored the first points of the half, that was the only moment they really looked dominant. On offense, Kentucky started moving the ball around more while also leaning on O'Neill, who finished the game with 6 field goals, 5 free throws, and 3 treys, and 18 of those points were in the second half. Each one of her threes felt a bit like a dagger. On defense, Kentucky started boxing Baylor out and forced us to shoot from the perimeter and we have yet to find that 3 point threat we've come to expect.
For Baylor, the second half looked like they wanted to play the same game they played in the second half, but Kentucky's adjustments didn't allow them. That isn't to say that Baylor didn't plan for the second half; it just seems like the players wanted to keep doing what they had been doing but weren't able to. As the half dragged on, you could see the players become more and more frustrated. This could be most easily seen in Nina Davis, who, while scoring the first two points of the second half, seemed to be silenced for long stretches of the second half, finishing 6 of 15 in the paint. Even when at the charity stripe she looked rattled.
However, if my review seems at all negative, then my apologies. This was a great game to watch. Painful to watch us go down and not be able to pull off the win, but a great game. This team did some great things and will continue to do so. This was our first big game without Griner or Sims and the team responded by playing as a team. In the first half the team was out rebounding Kentucky by nearly double digits and it wasn't one player grabbing every rebound (Griner). This was the team blocking out the opponents and making sure they got rebound. Even when Kentucky made their half time adjustment, Baylor continued to drive for the ball and went head-to-head with Kentucky.
On the offensive side, the Bears worked to get the ball to the open player and for the first half, tried to spread it around a bit more. In the second half, it seemed like we wanted to lean more on Davis and Kentucky wasn't going to have that. We started taking quick shots instead of the best shot and our field goal percentage (32% for the second half) and assists (eight assists on 25 field goals) reflected the shift. In addition, both teams were hustling for the ball so we weren't getting as many second chance shots and those we did were contested.
With both playing strong defense, the turnovers were high. Baylor finished the game with 24 and Kentucky 19. However, Baylor was also making sloppy passes and not holding onto the ball well, leading to more turnovers. As the second half progressed, the players made more and more mental mistakes, making a manageable game feel more out of hand, even if the score wasn't always reflecting it.
The key takeaways from this game is two-fold. First, the team came out solid, played a tough opponent in a tough environment (22,075 in attendance), and played the first half admirably well. If Baylor plays a full game like they did in the first half, there will be few teams that can beat them. Baylor played a more experienced team, with 4 seniors and 1 junior, and that experience showed and helped Kentucky take the game. The second takeaway is that while the second half was rough, everything is fixable. The turnovers can be cleaned up with more experience together, maturity through the season, and practice. The shift to the quick shot over the best shot improves as you have more experience together and against good teams. Handling the pressure of a surging team comes from experience as well and tonight will be an excellent lesson and reminder for these ladies.
Lady Bears, and their fans, its ok to be sad that we lost, but this was a great team and there are great things in store for our Bears!