WACO, Texas — The Texas Southern Lady Tigers have earned their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and with it comes a monumental challenge.
The Lady Tigers, who defeated Grambling to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament on Saturday, now travel to Waco to face fifth-ranked Baylor on the Lady Bears’ home floor Saturday night in a first-round tournament matcup.
Baylor (30-3) is such a huge favorite, not only to defeat Texas Southern but also the winner of the No. 8 seed LSU versus No. 9 California contest, that the Lady Bears unabashedly talked about reaching the regional semifinals in Oklahoma City during their selection-day press conference.
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“It’s good for our fans, good for the kids, I guess,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I don’t know, they probably wanted to go somewhere else. But, we’re familiar with Oklahoma City. We’ve had wonderful play there and we’ve had not-so-wonderful play. So, hopefully we get there.”
Most recently, West Virginia defeated Baylor, 77-66, in the Big 12 Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the same site where the Lady Bears would land should they win two more games on their home floor.
And Baylor can be forgiven for not harping on its opening round matchup versus Texas Southern (23-9).
Though the Lady Tigers have won eight straight and are in the middle of the best season in program history, they haven’t been tested like they will be against perennial powerhouse Baylor.
Texas Southern’s only game against a Power 5 opponent this season was a 77-48 loss at TCU, which finished ninth in the Big 12.
Even so, the Lady Tigers are embracing the challenge.
“It is a wonderful opportunity for our university,” Texas Southern coach Johnetta Hayes-Perry said. “These ladies have had a few firsts this year and I’m excited to be a part of their first opportunity (to play in the NCAA Tournament). It’s a big deal and it hasn’t hit me yet.”
Meanwhile, Baylor has a defined path to their ultimate goal of claiming the program’s third national championship. The Lady Bears play the first two rounds at home and a familiar destination in Oklahoma City that might lead back home. If Baylor reaches the Final Four for the fourth time in program history and the first time since 2012, the Lady Bears will play even closer to home in Dallas.
Baylor’s three losses this season were against tournament-favorite and then-third-ranked Connecticut, No. 11 Texas and West Virginia. At this point, the Lady Bears are inwardly focused, trying to stay sharp enough to meet expectations and reach the Final Four.
“You think about things you could have done differently on defense, or maybe you could have dived for that loose ball,” Baylor senior forward Nina Davis said. “So, of course, you still have those plays that run through your mind. You just try to do everything you can not to allow (a loss to a lower-seeded team) to happen this time. And hopefully, you can finally get over the hump.”