Kalani Brown faces final chance for Final Four with Baylor

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              California center CJ West (30) defends as Baylor center Kalani Brown (21) goes up to shoot in the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament in Waco, Texas, Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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WACO, Texas (AP) — Kalani Brown has a long list of accomplishments at Baylor, with Big 12 regular-season titles and NCAA Tournament trips in each of her four seasons. The 6-foot-7 senior center also has plenty of well-deserved individual awards.

“There’s only one thing to check off my list … that’s the Final Four,” Brown said.

“You can just kind of see it in her eyes, she’s relentless, she wants to get there,” said Lauren Cox, the 6-4 junior who is Brown’s teammate in the post. “You can just see it, every day in practice when she works, and in the games, just her determination.”

While Cox and the rest of the Lady Bears also want to get to the Final Four, this is Brown’s final chance and Baylor (33-1) still has to win two more games to get there. They have won 25 games in a row.

The Lady Bears, the No. 1 overall seed in the Women’s NCAA Tournament, are in the Sweet 16 for the 11th season in a row — they play Saturday in the Greensboro Regional against South Carolina, a team they beat by 25 points on the road in December.

But Baylor hasn’t been to the Final Four since winning the 2012 national championship at 40-0 when 6-8 center Brittney Griner was a junior.

Brown is only the sixth Baylor player with more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career, and is the school’s career leader making 64 percent of her field goals. She has been a unanimous All-Big 12 first-team pick for three consecutive seasons.

“The proudest I am of Kalani has nothing to do with how hard we pushed her,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “It’s how she maintains her composure on the floor. … It’s just amazing to me how she just can keep her cool with so much hitting and banging, and pushing and shoving.”

Even with opposing teams constantly putting two or three defenders on her, Brown is averaging 15.5 points and 8.1 rebounds this season while also making plenty of nifty passes to open teammates. She certainly got more attention on the floor after her double-double average last season when she was the Big 12 player of the year.

“I’m making my teammates better, I’m making it harder on other teams,” Brown said. “I could not score another point, but as long as I’m at a Final Four, I’m OK with that.”

While Brown’s father P.J. played 15 NBA seasons, her mother DeJuna was one of her assistant coaches in high school and one of her AAU coaches. Dee Brown played from 1990-93 at Louisiana Tech, where she was recruited by Mulkey, then an assistant coach at her alma mater.

Kalani Brown remembers her mother telling her she was going to need thick skin to play for Mulkey, who was going to coach her hard and not give her any special treatment. She found that out pretty quickly after getting to Baylor, calling her mom crying and saying she wanted to leave.

“I couldn’t count how many times I said I was going to transfer,” Brown said, recalling her early days in Waco. “But the player I am today, now looking back, it’s all worth it. … It’s about hard work, period.”

The first time Mulkey really met and talked with her was when she attended one of Baylor’s camps as a seventh-grader, when already much taller than other kids her age. Mulkey said the center, a two-time state champion in high school when she earned McDonald’s and Naismith All-America honors, isn’t feisty like her mother.

“Kalani is very laid-back. She’s very kind, she’s very sweet. I call her a gentle giant,” Mulkey said. “Her mom has more my personality in that she’s real intense. She played for intense coaches, she pushed Kalani to be what she is. And the sweet thing about that is no matter how hard her mom pushes her, or how hard I’ve pushed her, it never changed whole Kalani was.”