By Wendell Barnhouse
WACO, Texas – One of the most difficult challenges in sports is to win when you’re expected to win.
No. 3 Baylor, which clinched a share of the Big 12 Conference title Wednesday night, had a celebration set for Saturday. A victory over TCU would give the Lady Bears the outright title. A packed house at the Ferrell Center was ready to celebrate. Confetti was ready, the trophy was in the house.
And yes, the celebration went on as planned. But not before the Horned Frogs made Baylor work hard for a 91-75. The Lady Bears (26-1, 15-0) have won 25 in a row. TCU scored more points than any Big 12 team against Baylor … but the home team tallied its season high, besting the 89 in scored in its victory in Fort Worth.
“TCU is a very difficult team to defeat,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, whose team will be the No. 1 seed in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Women’s Championship March 6-9 at Dallas’ American Airlines Center. “But we hung in there.”
Baylor has won 82 of its last 85 Big 12 games. This year’s team, though, was without All-Americans Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims, players who helped the Lady Bears win a national championship and establish its Big 12 dominance.
“I think they’ve proven that every game they’re competitors,” Mulkey said. “We have a lot of depth, we don’t have just one superstar. They take criticism, they take coaching and they come to work every day.”
The regular season title is the fifth-straight and sixth overall Baylor. The Lady Bears shared last season’s regular-season title with West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ 71-69 victory in Waco just less than a year ago spoiled Senior Night and prevented Baylor from staging a trophy celebration.
“We didn’t get to do this last year and that was hard,” said junior guard Niya Johnson, who had 13 assists and zero turnovers in 36 minutes. “We didn’t forget about that loss. We took it to heart. We wanted to win this game so we didn’t have that feeling again.”
TCU (15-11, 7-8) utilizes a five-guard lineup. Their screening, motion and dribble drives forced Baylor to work hard on defense. And a 7-0 run capped by Natalie Ventress’ 3-pointer cut Baylor’s lead to 30-25 with 4:07 remaining in the first half.
The Lady Bears responded with a 9-0 run, all 3-pointers against TCU’s zone defense that initially slowed the game’s pace. Imani Wright, who made 4-of-8 threes, hit Baylor’s first, Alexis Prince then connected from the corner and Wright hit another off a pass from Johnson.
“I think their 3-point shooting was the difference,” TCU coach Raegan Pebley said. “That helped open up the paint for them because we had to come out and contest the shot a little harder, it took rebounders away from the basket.”
TCU remained within striking distance for the first five minutes of the second half, trailing 52-43 with 15:50 to play. The Horned Frogs, though, shot just 38.5 percent from the field while Baylor converted 57.4 percent and had a 42-27 rebounding edge.
Mulkey substituted frequently, using 11 players. And sophomore Khadijiah Cave came off the bench to play 19 minutes and score a career-high 23 points.
“Their depth proved to help them get this win tonight,” Pebley said.