Collen’s champs: Baylor women 0-2 to 12th B12 title in row

Mar 1, 2022, 9:50 PM | Updated: Mar 2, 2022, 11:52 am
Baylor head coach Nicki Collen reacts to a play in the second half of an NCAA college basketball ga...

Baylor head coach Nicki Collen reacts to a play in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Rod Aydelotte)

(AP Photo/Rod Aydelotte)

Baylor coach Nicki Collen joked about the idea of mimicking a late-night comedian and read aloud with the Bears some of the mean tweets that came after losing their first two Big 12 games in January.

After 11 consecutive Big 12 titles, with two of their three national championships coming in that span, the Bears started 0-2 in conference play with their new coach and her WNBA pedigree. The losses were 10 days apart because of a COVID-19 pause in the program, and Baylor was only seconds from losing its third in a row.

“They weren’t directed at the players as much. I think there were some things that were more generally speaking, but they were directed at me,” Collen said. “But I think that it brought us closer together. It was like, this is our circle, these are our people, this is who we’re doing it for.”

All-America senior forward NaLyssa Smith and the fifth-ranked Bears (24-5, 14-3 Big 12) have lost only once since, and made it to March guaranteed at least a share of their 12th consecutive conference title.

Their 13th regular-season Big 12 title is the first for Baylor without Kim Mulkey, who after 21 seasons in Waco went home to Louisiana. Sixth-ranked LSU has won 25 games, already 16 more than last season.

“Everybody thought we were vulnerable. Everybody thought I was the first chink in the armor. You know, Kim’s gone, what can this person do? And so because of that, we had to fight,” Collen said. “Honestly, this means a lot to me. But it will mean a lot more on Sunday because we’ve got one more game. We don’t want to share. Call me greedy, but this isn’t enough.”

Baylor can claim the outright conference title with a home win Sunday over Texas Tech. The Bears could also have it clinched on Saturday if No. 8 Iowa State, which lost 87-62 at home to the Bears on Monday night, loses at West Virginia,

This was certainly the most difficult of the four Big 12 titles Baylor has won during Smith’s career.

The Bears had lost only two conference games combined the previous four seasons. They hadn’t had back-to-back losses of any kind since February 2015, four seasons before the arrival of Smith, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the next WNBA draft.

“It means everything to us. I feel like we’ve been through so much adversity, like time after time, whether it’s injuries, COVID, new coach, new staff,” Smith said. “I just feel like we never complained. We always just took that adversity and put it on our shoulders and just kept working. … This team has so much strength mentally and physically, and I feel like that’s what got us this championship.”

Smith is second in the Big 12 at 21.8 points per game and is the league’s top rebounder at 11.7. She followed a career-high 33 points Saturday against Kansas with a career-best 20 rebounds (and 28 points) at Iowa State.

Baylor hadn’t been 0-2 in Big 12 play since losing its first 11 conference games and going 7-20 overall in 1999-2000, the last season before Mulkey took over. That was also when Texas Tech was the last team to be a Big 12 champ after starting 0-2.

In their third league game of the season, the Bears were down 79-75 at Kansas before Ja’Mee Asberry hit a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left and made two free throws four seconds later. Smith grabbed the rebound when KU missed a potential game-winning shot with 2 seconds left.

“Once we got that win over Kansas, that’s when I knew,” Smith said. “We never gave up that game. … It was a lot of key plays where you just saw like, oh yeah, this team is not going to give up.”

Baylor’s only loss since was 78-77 at home when Oklahoma hit a game-winning shot in the final half-second on Feb. 2. The Bears have won their last nine games by an average margin of nearly 19 points.

“I’m sure no one believed me when I said it back in October, but I told you we’d be a better team in March,” Collen said. “I told everyone we would be a better team. … It was about our team believing that it was going to take time to do what we’re doing right now.”

___

More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Collen’s champs: Baylor women 0-2 to 12th B12 title in row