Not a day goes by for Kim Mulkey that she doesn’t pause to ponder what she has to do to keep Baylor’s women’s basketball humming along with machine-like efficiency. Saturday was the latest example of that.
It wasn’t a thing of beauty — a tidbit Mulkey pointed out numerous times afterward — but it got the job done, as No. 2 Baylor waltzed past Kansas State 54-40 at Bramlage Coliseum. The Wildcats can wear some sort of badge of honor for holding the Lady Bears to a season-low point total.
It extended streaks, both for the Lady Bears and the Wildcats.
• 51 consecutive regular-season wins against Big 12 competition since a home loss to Texas on Feb. 3, 2017.
• 41 straight road victories in conference play, the third-best streak in NCAA history.
• 14 wins in a row this season since its lone setback to top-ranked South Carolina in the championship game of the Paradise Jam event in November.
• 33 losses in as many games against Baylor, dating back to its last win on Jan. 27, 2004.
That’s really the only streak of note from the Wildcats, one they had hoped, somehow, to end Saturday.
As was expected, that didn’t happen. K-State had a brief burst of momentum in the second quarter when Chrissy Carr swished a jumper to give the hosts a momentary 15-13 lead. The Lady Bears buried the Cats after that, outscoring the hosts 18-3 the remainder of the quarter to jog into the locker room with a 31-18 advantage.
The result never was in question after that — as if it ever really were to begin with.
It’s not that the Lady Bears never lose; they do, experiencing that oh-so-frustrating feeling of defeat every other team in the country does at the end of the season. Unless of course, said team goes undefeated on its way to the national championship. (Note that Baylor did this in 2011-12, when star center Brittney Griner was at the peak of her powers in leading the Lady Bears to a 40-0 record en route to the second national title in school history.)
Griner’s career serves as a line of demarcation for Baylor’s basketball program — if you will, think of it as “Before Griner” (B.G.) and “After Griner” (A.G.).
In the B.G. era (starting with Mulkey’s first season in 2000 and running until 2008), the Lady Bears were a very solid program, boasting one national championship, one Big 12 regular-season title, one conference tournament crown and a Final Four appearance. All of the championships, national and league, as well as the Final Four berth, came during the 2004-05 season.
During and following the A.G. era, Baylor ascended into the rarefied air occupied only by the ruling titans of women’s hoops. (You know them: UConn. Tennessee. Stanford. Notre Dame.) The Lady Vols have since tumbled from their lofty perch after Pat Summitt stepped down in 2012, but Mulkey and the Lady Bears stepped in to fill that void to join the Cardinal and the Huskies and the Fighting Irish.
Consider that starting with Griner’s sophomore year in 2009-10 through Saturday, the Lady Bears have lost just 33 games. (Ten of those came in 2009-10, when they ended up making their first Final Four since that magical 2004-05 season.) That’s 11 seasons — we’re just past the midpoint of this season, so it’s technically 10 and a half but we’re going to keep it a round number for the sake of simple math — of unspeakably high-level basketball. The numbers: 11 seasons, 33 losses equals an average of just three defeats a year.
Outside of the mighty Huskies — who the Lady Bears waxed on the road last month, winning 74-58 to snap UConn’s 98-game home win streak — no team in the sport has been more consistent than Mulkey’s over the past decade.
She hopes that the Lady Bears’ fan base appreciates what her program has accomplished. She hopes they don’t take it for granted.
She certainly doesn’t.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “I said this (Friday), ‘You will see coaches and programs get on a roll and a run and make it to a Final Four, and then you never hear from them again. You’ll see a program maybe win a Big 12 championship and you never hear from them again.’ It’s hard to do. But what’s even harder is to maintain a level of elite consistency.”
Count K-State head coach Jeff Mittie among those who marvel at it — somewhat to his chagrin, of course.
“They don’t have the ‘off nights’ that teams have, and if they do, their toughness is impressive,” said Mittie, who fell to 1-20 all-time in matchups with the Lady Bears. “It has a lot to do with Kim. Look at her as a player. Obviously, her DNA is throughout that team. They defend every single night. So what you see in a lot of teams is that even with (that kind of talent), you’re going to have off nights. But it is impressive what they’re doing in our league. No one in our league is crazy about it, but until we knock her off, it’s an impressive streak no doubt.”
What’s the key to beating them, though? To finally loosen the ironclad grip Mulkey has on the conference?
Taking a look at their last four losses, spread across the past three seasons, gives an easy-in-theory, seemingly easy-in-reality blueprint.
It’s a short list: To topple Baylor, a foe has to be better from long range. Of those four setbacks, the only constant is that the other team connected on more 3-pointers. That’s it. That’s the magical equation.
The Wildcats, you won’t be surprised to learn, did not outshoot the Lady Bears from distance Saturday. In fact, they didn’t make a single 3-pointer in 18 attempts. Not that the Lady Bears made hay from beyond the arc; they put up just four triples, making two.
The only other factor working in a team’s favor if it wants to bag the Lady Bears: It helps if you’re a Pac-12 school. Other than South Carolina earlier this season, Baylor’s three previous losses came at the hands of a team from the lone Power 5 conference on the West Coast. Stanford beat Baylor last season, UCLA and Oregon State (in the NCAA Tournament) the season before that.
Yet trying to concoct a connection via other numbers proved futile.
In three of the losses, the Lady Bears outscored their opponent on points in the paint ... except for the Gamecocks, who won that battle 44-40. Baylor committed fewer turnovers in two of the losses and outscored its opponents on points off turnovers on a pair of occasions; it also earned a split of controlling the boards.
To continue listing the various statistical oddities between the quartet of defeats would be a pointless endeavor.
Instead, look toward the future. Thanks to Saturday’s victory, the Lady Bears are 10-0 in the conference. The chief objective now, Mulkey said, is to do everything they can to win the regular-season championship for the 10th time in as many years. Then, and only then, will they start to turn their attention toward the NCAA Tournament, which they won last year. It was the third title for both the program and Mulkey; the only schools (and coaches) with more are the usual suspects: UConn (11, all with Geno Auriemma) and Tennessee (eight, all with Summitt).
To add another NCAA title to her trophy case, and climb ever closer to Auriemma and Summitt, is Mulkey’s expectation.
Mittie wouldn’t bet against her.
“This is a more athletic team than a year ago. Obviously, Kalani was such a physical presence, but this is a better 3-point shooting team,” said Mittie, referring to Kalani Brown, the Lady Bears’ All-America forward last season. “This is a team that has a lot of weapons offensively. Today, they won a game that (was) not a lot of possessions. It was a tough, physical game.”
The Lady Bears came out of it unscathed, though, on the injury front. That, in Mulkey’s mind, is what will decide whether Baylor cuts down the nets after the national title game. Until then, the Bears will stick with the same approach that, year in and year out, pays handsome dividends come March.
“We just grind and get ready for the next game,” she said. “I know someday I’ll retire and I’ll look back and probably smell the roses a little bit.”
For the rest of the Big 12, that day can’t come soon enough.