(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)By STEPHEN HAWKINSAP Basketball Writer
The biggest prize is all that remains on the list of goals for Baylor and 6-foot-8 senior star Brittney Griner after sweeping the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles for the third year in a row.
The top-ranked Lady Bears are six NCAA tournament victories away from another national title.
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”I think we’re on track, just like we were last year,” Griner said.
Griner, Odyssey Sims and their Baylor teammates are getting a couple of well-deserved days off during spring break after a dominating run through the Big 12. A little rest for the defending national champions before what likely will be another deep run into the NCAA tournament.
”These young ladies completed another part of their goal board,” coach Kim Mulkey said proudly after the Lady Bears’ 75-47 victory over No. 23 Iowa State in the Big 12 title game Monday night. ”Their goal was to win a Big 12 championship, win a tourney championship. And they’ve done that.”
A year after becoming the NCAA’s first 40-win team during an undefeated national championship season, the Lady Bears (32-1) will surely be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament again. They have won 30 games in a row since a two-point loss to Stanford a week into this season when Sims was hurt.
”I think we’re where we need to be, especially with this game,” Griner said after the Big 12 tournament-clinching victory in a matchup of the league’s top two seeds. ”If we can play like we played (against the Cyclones), anything’s possible.”
The Lady Bears will open the NCAA tournament at home on the Waco campus, where first- and second-round games will be played March 24 and 26. They have a nation’s-best 55-game home winning streak.
On the podium after the Big 12 title game, Griner and Sims both said they hoped Mulkey would give them ”maybe a couple days off.” The coach agreed, knowing that wanting a break doesn’t mean her team is satisfied with what they’ve done so far.
”Just rest and get in the gym, tune up some little things that we need to work on, polish some edges, just keep doing what we’re doing,” Griner said.
”We’re a great team. There’s always something to be corrected,” said Sims, the junior point guard and only non-senior starter. ”Whenever we start practicing again, we’ll get out there, nothing will change. Working on the basics, working on Baylor things that we normally work on, getting focused, our main goal.”
In her final Big 12 game, Griner had 23 of her 31 points by halftime – outscoring Iowa State by 10 points on her own by then.
Griner finished 14 of 17 shooting and had as many field goals as the Cyclones’ entire team when she came out of the game for good with 4:12 left and Baylor up by 32 points.
Baylor led 41-13 at halftime. Griner missed only one of her 12 first-half shots, but grabbed the rebound of that miss for a putback that started a 19-0 run and put the Lady Bears ahead to stay.
The only time Baylor didn’t win the Big 12 regular season or tournament title with the trio of fourth-year seniors Griner, Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden was when they were freshmen three years ago. But they made it to the NCAA Final Four that season.
Baylor has won 49 consecutive regular-season and tournament games in the Big 12, going undefeated through league in the regular season the past two years.
What that streak doesn’t include is an NCAA regional final loss – one game shy of another Final Four appearance – to then-conference foe Texas A&M two years ago in the American Airlines Center, where the Lady Bears got to celebrate their latest Big 12 tournament title.
”I don’t take championships for granted. We may never win another one. This may be our last Big 12 championship. Who knows?,” Mulkey said. ”But the thing you can’t say about this bunch is that we were talented and never won it all, never won any.
”Other than the one little epic disappointment, I think they’ve had a great run in the Big 12 and the NCAA tournament,” the coach said. ”I really do, whether we ever win another one.”