In five short years, coach brings out best in Baylor
They'll never admit it, but sometimes a coach just doesn't know what to say after a loss.
You wonder if your players, heads hung low, are even listening. If anything you say can take away the sting.
And boy, you just knew this one would stick with the Baylor Lady Bears for a while.
Down by 21 points against then No. 2-ranked LSU in their season opener, the eighth-ranked Bears staged a furious second-half comeback to tie the score with 1:40 to play, only to lose on the final possession.
But in the locker room afterward, the words flowed freely from Kim Mulkey-Robertson's mouth.
"One day," the Baylor coach told her players, "we're going to be able to win these games."
Turns out, the words were more fact than false hope. And five months later, the Lady Bears' ability to win -- both by blowout and by the skin of their teeth -- has brought the program its first regular-season Big 12 title, its first conference tournament championship and, after Saturday's 64-57 victory over Minnesota, its first trip to the Elite Eight where it will meet North Carolina on Monday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
Along the way, Baylor notched 15 wins by at least 15 points, but also pulled out the tight ones, winning six games that were decided by five or fewer points, including a one-point victory over Sweet 16 competitor Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.
Still, the most notable number of all might be the fact that the just five years ago, Baylor was the worst team in the Big 12.
That, of course, was before Mulkey-Robertson arrived. Before the program produced not one but two All-Americans (junior Sophia Young was named to the AP All-America Second Team, while senior Steffanie Blackmon was tabbed a third-team pick) this season. Before Baylor became one of just two teams this year among the major conferences to win its regular-season and tournament titles outright. And before Mulkey-Robertson racked up a stunning 126-38 record.
No one doubted Mulkey-Robertson would be successful as a head coach. People, including the coach herself, just thought it would be at a different school. After helping Louisiana Tech win back-to-back national championships in 1981 and '82, she joined Leon Barmore's staff and served as an assistant for 15 years. By the time Barmore decided to retire, the assumption was that the program would fall into Mulkey-Robertson's hands.
The offer, albeit disappointing, was made. But Mulkey-Robertson declined. And who could blame her? After giving 19 years to Louisiana Tech, she asked for a five-year contract. The best the school came up with was a one-year deal that would be revisited after her first season.
"I had spent 38 years in Louisiana, and had given 19 years of my life to Louisiana Tech," she said. "I never thought I would leave. I never realized there was a bigger world out there."
But Baylor came calling, and Mulkey-Robertson soon made her way to Waco, Texas. Success quickly followed.
The team went 7-20 prior to her arrival, but Mulkey-Robertson has since guided the Lady Bears to the postseason every season. In 2001, Baylor produced its first professional players when Sheila Lambert and Danielle Crockrom were each drafted in the first round. Lambert also became the program's first Kodak All-American, and Baylor continues to break the program's attendance records.
Ironically, Lambert also won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, which recognizes the nation's best player who's 5 feet, 7 inches or shorter. Mulkey-Robertson, who, despite being a playmaker in college scored a then-national record 4,075 points at Hammond High School, won the inaugural award in 1984. Now, with three more wins this season, Mulkey-Robertson could become the first woman to win NCAA titles as both a player and coach.
Junior guard Chameka Scott says her coach's intensity sets the tone for the Lady Bears.
"[Coach] has the ability to get the best out of her players and puts it on the line in every aspect of the game, whether it's going after officials or going after us," Scott said. "She makes you take it up another notch, mentally, emotionally, and how you play on the court."
And yet, despite Mulkey-Robertson's intensity, she has taught Baylor to stay cool and in control in the clutch.
The Lady Bears, who are riding a school-record 17-game winning streak, will need that Monday. Both UNC and Baylor like to run, with the Tar Heels averaging nearly 80 points and the Bears putting about 75 on the board each game. Sounds like it could be another close one.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.