- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As Baylor's women's basketball team stands two victories away from the program's third Big 12 tournament title, let's flash back to the first one.
That was 2005, and Baylor was on the verge of its true national breakthrough, winning the NCAA title. That team wasn't loaded with sought-after recruits whom people had been hearing about well before college. To the contrary, two of Baylor's top players in 2005 had ended up in Waco, Texas, largely because of random good fortune.
Leading scorer and rebounder Sophia Young had come to Louisiana from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as a teenager and happened to be discovered by the father of one of Mulkey's assistant coaches.
Abiola Wabara was from Italy; her aunt had gone to Baylor and pitched her to Mulkey's staff. A former college teammate of Mulkey's who had played with Wabara in Italy vouched for her.
Contrast that to two of the biggest stars at Baylor now, center Brittney Griner and point guard Odyssey Sims, who every top team in the country wanted to recruit.
That's what you call program building. When Mulkey came to Baylor for the 2000-01 season, Baylor had never made the NCAA tournament field. Since she has been there, Baylor has made it every season but one, and has made two trips to the Final Four.
And while this season is unlike 2005 in that Baylor will not surprise anyone if the Lady Bears are able to win it all, there are a few interesting similarities. As was the case in 2005, the Big 12 tournament is in Kansas City, and Baylor will meet Kansas State in it. Also, just like six years ago, the ultimate end goal is Indianapolis.
A lot of Baylor fans made it to the RCA Dome then to see the Women's Final Four victories over LSU and Michigan State by the Lady Bears, then seeded No. 2 in the NCAA tournament. This year, the smaller Conseco Fieldhouse is the Final Four venue, and Baylor looks sure to be a No. 1 seed.
But Baylor will have to take care of its Big 12 business fist, and next up are the Wildcats, who will be trying for a gargantuan upset. Kansas State hasn't defeated Baylor since 2004, having lost nine in a row in the series. That included a loss in the 2005 Big 12 final, which propelled Baylor into its triumphant NCAA tournament run.
While we're on this little history tour, we'll point out that in this last season of the Big 12 with a North/South schedule matrix, K-State is the last surviving North school, and will face top-seeded Baylor in Friday's first semifinal at 1 p.m. ET. That's followed by No. 2 seed Texas A&M against No. 3 Oklahoma.
The Aggies are the defending champions and also won the Big 12 tourney in 2008. Oklahoma has won the most Big 12 tournament titles with four.
Kansas State has not won a Big 12 tournament title; no North school has since Iowa State did in 2001. Next year, there will be no more North and South; Colorado's and Nebraska's departures leave the league with 10 teams that will play a full round-robin schedule.
Baylor, which also won the Big 12 title in 2009, made its second Final Four appearance last year, losing to eventual champion UConn. This season Baylor spent several weeks at the No. 1 spot before being upset at Texas Tech on Feb. 19, and it has been a surprisingly smooth ride considering two big bumps in the road early. Senior point guard Kelli Griffin left the program just before the season started, meaning Sims had to step to the plate immediately. Also, valued bench contributor Shanay Washington suffered a torn ACL in November.
Even so, Baylor's depth has been quite good. It has been helped with the addition of Destiny Williams, a transfer from Illinois who became eligible in December and just had her best game of the season Wednesday in the Lady Bears' Big 12 quarterfinal win over Kansas.
"I saw an intense basketball team that took that floor for Baylor," Mulkey said of that 86-51 win. "If they can do that a couple more days in the tournament, I feel good about our chances of winning it. It's a basketball team that is so talented, but when that intensity matches their talent, it's special."
That victory was indicative of one of Baylor's strengths: As good as Griner is, Baylor is a complete team. Against Kansas, Williams had 21 points and eight rebounds, Melissa Jones had eight points and nine rebounds, and Sims had nine points. All complemented Griners' 19 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots.
Baylor also had a relentless effort, which is something the ultra-competitive Mulkey has inspired in a group that seems by nature a little more laid-back than she is.
"Coach always tells us never take a possession off, and today I don't think we did," Griner said of their performance against the Jayhawks. "Our intensity in the first half was amazing. It wasn't in spurts, it was all the way through."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
18dBonnie D. Ford