Jones, not Griner, is beat behind Baylor
WACO, Texas -- Perhaps it was the wrong day to talk with Kim Mulkey about Melissa Jones.
Baylor had just finished a 77-67 win at home against Louisiana Tech, but the coach was visibly frustrated by the sloppy effort from her team -- particularly on the part of Jones and her other veterans. The Lady Bears allowed a Louisiana Tech team beaten on talent but not effort to cut away at what had been a 24-point lead in the first half. If not for superb showings by the freshman class, including 22 points, eight rebounds and six blocks from Brittney Griner, the final minutes might have been even more tense than they turned out to be.
So despite an absence of visible steam around her ears, Mulkey simmered afterward, the look in her eyes and the snap in her answers seemingly capable of doing far more harm than even the sharp heels of her shoes.
Ranked No. 6 in the nation, Baylor improved to 7-1 with Saturday's victory against the Lady Techsters. But coming on the heels of six consecutive wins by at least 20 points, the performance left the coach unsure her team was ready for either this coming weekend's trip to Madison Square Garden to face Boston College or a subsequent trip to Las Vegas for games against postseason hopefuls Gonzaga and Arizona State.
"We probably couldn't lift our feet to get on the plane, we looked so tired at the end of the game," Mulkey said. "So we better take a couple of days off and regroup, see if I'm not running them enough in practice. I just thought fatigue set in the last 10 or 11 minutes. I'm not used to coaching a team that has that many turnovers from returning players."
To that end, Jones, junior point guard Kelli Griffin and senior forward Morghan Medlock combined for 15 turnovers against Louisiana Tech. Medlock gained some measure of reprieve with 15 points and nine rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, but Jones in particular struggled through her longest day of the young season.
Even when she wasn't charged with an official miscue, she heard it from her coach, who chewed her out as they walked off the court at halftime after a bobbled pass by Jones at the top of the key squandered the final possession. Long after the game, given another chance to cool off after the initial news conference, Mulkey seethed slightly less but was no less serious in her criticism.
"Melissa Jones has earned the right to call this her team, and she's got to be our leader," Mulkey said. "And while you can have off nights shooting, there's some intangibles to your game, as a leader and a captain, you can't have off nights. And I thought MJ didn't have one of her better games today. But this is still her team."
Griner might be one of the emerging faces of the sport, but Jones is the face of the team. A contributor since she first arrived in Waco as a top recruit from Colorado, she made a claim to ownership last season after Danielle Wilson went down with a season-ending injury almost on the eve of the Big 12 tournament. Ranked fifth when Wilson was injured Feb. 28, the Lady Bears lost their first game without her by 24 points at Kansas.
But in six subsequent games last season across the conference tournament and the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, Jones averaged 12.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals. The second number is all the the more impressive considering that at 5 feet, 10 inches, Jones is closer in height to a point guard like Griffin than most elite rebounders. She has carried that run through the first month of this season, averaging 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals.
Melissa Jones needs to be a household name in women's basketball because she's one of the finest players that people don't talk about. When you do a scouting report on us, one of the first players you better talk about is Melissa Jones because she can play any position on the floor. She is our captain, and everything we do is going to go through Melissa.” -- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey
She rebounds like a post player, particularly on the offensive end, where she's adept at picking out angles and seems to slip in amid bigger bodies and finish second chances. She shoots like a specialist -- she was accurate in limited looks last season but already is just six 3-pointers shy of her career high this season while hitting at a 44 percent clip. And she handles the perimeter on both ends of the court -- currently No. 12 in the Big 12 in assists and steals, and No. 10 in assist-turnover ratio. In that respect, she's the perfect star to share the stage with Griner. Jones doesn't need plays run for her constantly to make an impact.
"Melissa Jones needs to be a household name in women's basketball because she's one of the finest players that people don't talk about," Mulkey said. "When you do a scouting report on us, one of the first players you better talk about is Melissa Jones because she can play any position on the floor. She is our captain, and everything we do is going to go through Melissa."
Given Jones' impact on a team with nine freshmen or sophomores, it becomes more clear why even in victory against Louisiana Tech, Mulkey was so worked up.
"Tomorrow the sun will come up," Mulkey said. "I'll love her and hug her and be grateful that she's on my team. But the way I coach is to be brutally honest with kids [and] challenge them. And nobody feels any worse today than Melissa, I can assure you of that. Because she's a competitor."
That much is clear from the legends that flitter out of the Waco air about Jones, a folk hero as much in demand as Griner when kids flood the court after games for autographs. She once ate a live cricket. She downed a glass of hot sauce on a dare. She went sky diving over the summer (it has been suggested by those in control of such things that she not repeat that last one until after she's finished playing basketball at Baylor). All of the adventurousness she credits to growing up as the youngest sibling to three older brothers, Matthew, Mark and Michael, each of whom is within four years of her.
Football players, basketball players and wrestlers all, they also are the ones she credits with her particular penchant for taking punishment on the court equal to, if not greater than, any Mulkey scolding.
"I think that's something that I kind of turn to with what my bothers have taught me," Jones said. "Just because of the fact that I'm not as quick as other players. I'm not going to be able to jump as high as everybody. So if I can just get in there and be physical and give myself a couple of those opportunities, that's what I'm going to go for."
That doesn't come without a thick skin, and so there Jones was an hour after the game, signing every shirt and program, chatting with fans and then sitting down in an otherwise empty arena and saying she accepted full responsibility for "not being fully here" during the game. For a young team with championship aspirations, it's not a bad lead to follow.
"It's so valuable and it's so important," Mulkey said of the necessity of Jones' leadership. "And in a lot of way, it's unfair because when Melissa has an off night, we're out of sync. And we're too young to be out of sync because of Melissa. And we just expect so much of her. She'll play through injuries, she'll play hurt. She never wants to miss a practice. And nobody is going to outwork Melissa Jones. Nobody that I've ever coached works harder than she does."
As it turns out, a bad day was a good chance to study Jones.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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