OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Being comfortable on college basketball’s biggest stage has never been a problem for Kim Mulkey.
That confidence is easy to understand when you’ve won as much as the Hall of Fame coach at Baylor. Mulkey was up to her usual fun-loving antics on Thursday as the No. 2 seed Lady Bears (32-3) prepared to face third-seeded Iowa (26-7) in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
She recalled her days as a top youth baseball player, talked of her love for singing country music in the shower and appeared every bit as much at ease as if working in her home garden during the offseason.
Believe it or not, Mulkey even talked about basketball and the very real possibility of Baylor reaching the Elite Eight for the fifth time in six seasons – even if her relaxed approach didn’t carry the same pressure-packed feel that many of her colleagues display.
Whether it’s the career full of winning or simply confidence, the two-time national championship coach’s attitude carries a certain weight with the Lady Bears.
And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
"I just think the program and what we’ve been able to establish there for 15 years, those expectations bring a level of confidence to those players," Mulkey said. "And they don’t want to disappoint the previous players. They don’t want to disappoint the future players."
Baylor, led by Big 12 Conference Player of the Year Nina Davis, advanced to its seventh straight Sweet 16 with wins over Northwestern State and Arkansas last weekend.
The Lady Bears face an experienced Iowa team. The program is making its eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance – albeit its first Sweet 16 berth since 1996.
Led by senior guard Samantha Logic, the Hawkeyes won games over American and Miami last weekend as a tournament host. They’ve never faced Baylor, but coach Lisa Bluder is also confident while embracing the underdog role in a star-packed Oklahoma City regional that also features traditional powers Notre Dame and Stanford.
"We’re kind of the last ones to the part here," Bluder said. "The other three schools are used to being in this environment … So everybody should be for the Iowa Hawkeyes, low man on the totem pole here with the other coaches."
Five things to watch as Baylor attempts to reach the Elite Eight for the fifth time in six seasons:
POINT BATTLE: Logic enters the game third in the country in assists, averaging 7.9 per game. The senior, however, is only half of what is likely the top matchup of point guards in the tournament – with Baylor junior Niya Johnson in the opposite corner. Johnson leads the country with an average of 8.7 assists per game, and she has the respect of her opponent. "I like watching pass-first point guards, so getting to play against one at that elite level … it’s just fun," Logic said.
ANYTHING BUT AWKWARD: While Davis is one of the top players in the country, at 5-foot-11 she’s not your typical center. And her high, sometimes two-handed jump shot isn’t conventional – with Johnson jokingly calling it "awkward" on Thursday. Awkward or not, the shot works just fine for Davis, who is averaging 20.9 points per game and is shooting 58.6 percent from the field.
HOMETOWN TOUCH: The Hawkeyes were 18-0 at home this season, including their first two wins in the tournament. Bluder said several players brought pieces of the net they cut down last weekend with them to Oklahoma City to feel more like home, and they also brought a locker room "Tiger Hawk" sign with them to try and recreate their home court magic.
NOT LOOKING AHEAD: Baylor fell one game short of the Final Four last season, losing 88-69 to Notre Dame in South Bend. If the Lady Bears advance past Iowa, they could possibly face a rematch with the top-seeded Fighting Irish. Mulkey said while the coaches have scouted both possible opponents, she isn’t concerned about the youthful Lady Bears looking ahead.
SIZE ADVANTAGE: Led by Davis’ 8.3 rebounds per game, Baylor enters the game with a 44.8-36.5 average rebounding edge over Iowa. The Lady Bears are also fifth in the country with a 12.1 rebounding advantage over its opponents this season.