The Baylor and Tennessee women’s basketball teams showed they had their priorities in check as they paid tribute to Sandy Hook Elementary School Tuesday night before tipoff.
Silence filled the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, before the national anthem as all coaches, players and attendees took a moment to remember the victims and families of those affected by Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
During warm-ups, the teams emerged wearing shirts in the school colors (green and white) of Sandy Hook Elementary School that read “We Will Remember”, acknowledging that there are bigger things happening in this world than basketball.
After the recognition of a national tragedy, Baylor took to the court with a fierceness and depth that the young Tennessee team could not hold up against in the Lady Bears’ 76-53 victory.
Senior post Brittney Griner hit the floor ready to go and scored the first six points for the Lady Bears, sparking what would be a 17-0 run by Baylor.
“I think we just came out prepared and on fire,” Griner said. “Anytime we play Tennessee it’s always a high intensity game, so everybody was fired up. I know I was at least.”
After that, the ball just would not fall for Tennessee. Almost seven minutes into the game, the Lady Vols finally got their first basket of the night. The shot came on a jumper from sophomore forward Cierra Burdick. The score was 17-2 almost halfway through the first half.
“It was [frustrating] because we’ve really been shooting the ball well and I thought we had open looks, but they were always rushed and that was just the presence of their defense and how they played against us,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said. “We were quick-shooting the basketball and our game plan was not to quick-shoot the basketball.”
Against a Tennessee team that is classically known for its ability to jump to the glass and come down with offensive rebounds, Baylor was able to maintain a more than comfortable lead with its high-energy defense and effective rebounding.
Baylor only allowed two Tennessee players to score in double digits – junior Meighan Simmons (16) and senior Kamiko Williams (15) – and registered eight steals.
“I just thought that we were ready to play,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “I thought that our defensive intensity was pretty special there at the beginning. I just thought everybody fed off of each other when the game started.”
By the end of the first half, Baylor had developed a 41-16 lead over Tennessee, the largest halftime deficit in the history of Tennessee women’s basketball. The new record beat the previous one held by Rutgers who put the Lady Vols down by 20 points at the half in January 2009.
“[We] just went up against a tough Baylor team and didn’t come ready to play the first half, and that had a lot do with Baylor’s defense and their presence,” Warlick said. “Once we settled down, I thought we did a good job in the second half, but you can’t spot a team 20-something points and expect to win…”
But even after a 20-point deficit against Rutgers, Tennessee had climbed back to win that game in 2009 by four points, so the Lady Bears knew complacency was not an option.
Baylor never lightened up on Tennessee and grabbed as much as a 28-point lead and never allowed the Lady Vols to get within 19 points.
“I thought it started on the defensive end,” Mulkey said. “I thought they missed a lot of shots, but I tend to want to think that we were contesting a lot of those that they missed…they come down the floor and, as I said earlier, there’s not a bad shot in what they try to do. We understood that and needed to make sure we were back in transition for defense.”
Griner led the Lady Bears with her third consecutive double-double (17 points and 12 rebounds), but the depth of Baylor was truly apparent through the effort and effectiveness of two players who have recently been overlooked – seniors forward Brooklyn Pope and guard Kimetria Hayden.
But Pope didn’t go overlooked tonight. She also recorded a double-double, her first of the season, with 11 points and a career-high 16 rebounds for the Lady Bears.
“Coach Mulkey let us know that Tennessee, their program is known for rebounding throughout the years and this year isn’t going to change anything,” Pope said. “Pat Summitt’s system is still in, so they went to the offensive rebounds really hard against Texas and we wanted to prevent that; so if we get the offensive rebound, we had a second chance to score...”
During Baylor’s search for back-to-back championship seasons and after being overlooked by fans most of her time at Baylor, Pope now has a place in the starting lineup and has been playing her best basketball in her time at Baylor after graduating in May 2012.
“More sleep,” is what Pope attributes her improved performance to. “I don’t really do anything but focus on basketball and that’s really helping…Now I’m playing like I did in high school where I had no worries…I just finally bought into the system this year and said, ‘Stop fighting the system because Baylor isn’t going to change, you will.’ So it’s working for me now.”
Backing up Griner and Pope was Hayden. Keeping her eyes open for shots the entire game, Hayden came out with 16 points. She made four three-pointers (tying a career high) and tied a season high with her six assists. She also led the team with three of its eight steals.
“I’ve ben in the gym more, shooting, because I know they’re going to double-team Brittney (Griner) and we have to make open shots…that’s all I did,” Hayden said. “I was patient.”
Baylor, with depth flowing throughout its roster, found a way to draw out and capitalize on the weaknesses in a young Tennessee team tonight. But although they looked dominating, Mulkey still knows her team has more to offer.
“I thought we started out as good as a lot of teams, but we’re not anywhere near the team today that we were when we won the championship,” Mulkey said. “The pieces are there – probably more depth than we had on last year’s team – but we’re not at that point. Yet.” -- Savannah Pullin