Hands-off Mulkey keeps No. 1 Baylor rolling

Even after guiding Baylor to the national championship last
season with the same group of core players, coach Kim Mulkey still
doesn’t understand the way her team goes about preparing to play a
game.

With smartphones, televisions and other technology serving as
potential distractions all around the locker room, Mulkey has
figured out that her best place to spend her time before the game
is anywhere else.

”I just stay away from `em because the way I get prepared for a
game when I was a player and now as a coach is a lot different than
young people do,” Mulkey said Saturday. ” … It’s not that
they’re not focused. It’s just away from the court that they’re
college kids. Sometimes we forget that.

”So, I learned about their sophomore year to not walk in that
locker room before a game because the way I think you should
prepare for a game may not be the way they prepare for a game.
Whatever they’ve been doing, it’s been successful, and you don’t
want to change `em.”

Led by All-American Brittney Griner, the top-ranked Lady Bears
(34-1) have won 74 of 75 games leading up to Sunday’s game against
No. 5 seed Louisville (26-8) in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
The other Oklahoma City regional semifinal game pits No. 2 seed
Tennessee (26-7) against sixth-seeded Oklahoma (24-10).

All four teams have made it to the Final Four before, although
only Baylor has been there with its current nucleus. Griner and her
fellow seniors made it to the Final Four in 2010, then lost in the
regional finals in 2011 before winning it all last year.

Mulkey said she exerted her influence on this group of players
earlier in their careers, making sure all the personalities meshed
to create a productive environment for the team. She recalled
benching starter Jordan Madden for being too ”silly” on the floor
at one point.

”When you leave that floor, if they’ve given me everything they
have, I have to let them be college kids after I let them out of
that locker room,” said Mulkey, remembering that she had a bag
phone once and there might not have even been a stereo in the
Louisiana Tech locker room when she won a national title there.

”It’s the floor that you are mainly concerned about, how they
represent you on that floor.”

So, she’s fine with Griner being a free spirit, Madden being
happy-go-lucky and Brooklyn Pope being sarcastic if the results
keep coming. Griner took time to make sure players were seated in
what she considered the appropriate spots – with her the farthest
right – before Baylor’s question-and-answer session could
begin.

”Everybody on this team hates to lose. We love to win. That’s
motivation enough right there,” Griner said, noting that Mulkey
challenges the team to win each segment of the game between
timeouts, no matter if the score is lopsided.

Louisville’s Jeff Walz joked twice that he’d try to sneak six
players onto the court to try and keep it a close game,
particularly since the Lady Bears have played just three games
decided by single digits this season – including their only loss,
at Stanford in November.

”I’ve told our kids, `If you come out and play scared, it’s not
going to matter,” Walz said. ”So we’re going to try to come out
and attack.”

For everyone but Baylor, making it this far has been a matter of
persevering through a rash of injuries. The Cardinals absorbed the
loss of Tia Gibbs, Asia Taylor and Shawnta’ Dyer while Monique Reid
has been limited by a knee injury. All had starting experience.

Oklahoma has been making it by without the services of
do-everything captain Whitney Hand and three others – Kaylon
Williams, Maddie Manning and Lyndsey Cloman – to season-ending
injuries.

Tennessee’s injuries haven’t been quite as serious, but still
plentiful with Cierra Burdick (broken hand), Kamiko Williams (both
ankles), Andraya Carter (shoulder surgery) and Isabelle Harrison
all getting hurt. Harrison has missed time because of her right
ankle and left knee and was wearing a brace on her right knee
Saturday while she works back from her latest injury.

Sooners coach Sherri Coale described her team’s struggle through
it all as climbing a mountain, slogging through a swamp and getting
stuck in quicksand but still managing to make progress
throughout.

”I always have these really smart kids. I can talk around
stuff. They’re going to know what’s happening anyway. So, we just
call spades spades,” Coale said. ”We talk about what an
accomplishment this is to be here. We let it sort of sink in. …
Just getting here is not enough. Who is to say what is enough? What
is enough is what you’re capable of. We believe we have a lot of
basketball left in us.”