GREENSBORO, N.C. — Baylor coach Kim Mulkey passed on making an opening statement at Friday’s news conferences, smiling and playfully suggesting that reporters previewing the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA tournament had their own agenda anyway.
Mulkey had her own agenda, too.
Get everyone to forget a 25-point December victory over Saturday’s opponent, 2017 national champion South Carolina.
And avoid a repeat of 2013.
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That was the last time Baylor was the No. 1 overall seed entering the tournament before this season. That team, like this one, reached the Sweet 16 with only a regular-season loss against Stanford and on a long winning streak heading into a game against Louisville.
At the time, people didn’t give the Cardinals much of a chance against Baylor, the then-defending national champion. Louisville senior Monique Reid remembered people saying, “The only way we were going to win is if Baylor’s bus didn’t show up.”
The bus showed up.
And Baylor lost 82-81.
There’s a similar buzz of Baylor dominance heading into Saturday’s games at Greensboro Coliseum. The Lady Bears — who will face fourth-seeded South Carolina in the regional semifinals (ESPN/ESPN App, 1:30 p.m. ET) after No. 3 seed NC State plays No. 2 Iowa (ESPN/ESPN App, 11:30 a.m. ET) — are riding a nation-best 25-game winning streak since a 68-63 setback at Stanford on Dec. 15. They’ve won their past five games by an average margin of 36.2 points.
It seems the only thing that will keep Baylor from returning to the Final Four for the first time since it went 40-0 to capture the 2012 title is for the bus to be redirected to the North Carolina mountains.
Mulkey is taking nothing for granted.
“That’s why it’s called March Madness,” said Mulkey, whose Lady Bears lost in the Sweet 16 last season and in the Elite Eight four straight years from 2014 to 2017. “There are no guarantees. Because we played these guys in December guarantees us nothing. If you think we’re walking around here with our chests poked out and our heads really big and licking our chops, you don’t know a heck of a lot about me and my personality. We have a respectful fear of everybody we play.”
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That message hasn’t been lost on her players, who seemingly have put how they clobbered South Carolina 94-69 far behind them. It was the most points South Carolina had allowed at home since 2001.
“It’s going to be a completely different game,” said 6-foot-4 forward Lauren Cox, one half of Baylor’s feared inside tandem. “Their transition game is really good. They’re really quick.”
Kalani Brown, the other half of Baylor’s inside game at 6-7, remembers a South Carolina team that “never gave up” despite a large margin. She expects a much more physical game this time.
But is there a reason to think the outcome won’t be different?
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said her team is healthier and more experienced than it was the first time around. She feels better equipped to allow her players to “fly around” and play freely than she did in the first meeting, when she loaded up in a zone hoping to slow Baylor’s front line.
“Anything can happen at this stage of the game,” Staley said. “I’m excited. We have no pressure. … They’re the No. 1 team in the country and have played extremely well all season. We’re going to give it our best shot and see where it lands us.”
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index rated Baylor (20 percent), Notre Dame (22.5 percent) and UConn (21.5 percent) as co-favorites to win the national title before the tournament. Notre Dame got a slight nod because it had what was perceived an easier path to the Final Four.
That Baylor (33-1) has to play a South Carolina (23-9) team not far removed from winning it all and then potentially face Iowa (28-6) and star center Megan Gustafson (6-3) is a tall task for any team.
Gustafson, the espnW national player of the year and a first-team espnW All-American, isn’t looking past NC State (28-5), but she admits it will take “one of our best games” to beat Baylor should they meet in the Elite Eight.
“If we face Baylor, I’m really excited for that matchup,” she said. “Everyone in the country is, honestly.”
Baylor just hopes to avoid another upset like the one in 2013. Louisville pulled off the shocker by making 16 of 25 3-pointers and showing Baylor a physicality it hadn’t experienced to that point.
“You can’t compare South Carolina to Louisville,” Mulkey insisted. “Those teams are totally different.”
But you can compare what happened in 2013 to what Baylor faces now.
“If we were playing a team that had not won a game all year, I’m going to do the same thing in that locker room, the same kind of scouting report, because that’s how I coach,” Mulkey said. “I have a respectful fear of the next opponent.”