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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Odyssey Sims hopped to the bench and several sections of green-and-yellow-clad fans in the stands behind the Baylor bench, not to mention legions more watching in Waco and elsewhere, winced with her.
Not quite two minutes into Monday's Big 12 championship game, Sims barreled into a collection of dark blue jerseys in the lane, as she is wont to do a dozen or so times a night. But instead of jogging back the other way after a layup or stepping to the free throw line, she ended up gingerly picking herself off the ground after the ball rolled out of bounds. Then she half-hopped and half-limped her way toward the bench as a freshman checked into the game for her.
As if Baylor fans didn't have enough bad memories in this place, the site of the Sweet 16 game that no one in women's basketball will soon forget, as much as those who swear by the burgers at George's and spend their days by the Brazos River might wish otherwise.
Here was the player who makes everything go for Baylor, the All-American almost universally acclaimed as the single most indispensable player in the sport this season, grimacing on the bench and looking down at her ankle.
|Niya Johnson, third Baylor player from the left, was a difference-maker Monday, scoring 19 points and adding six assists and three steals.|
Only it didn't much matter. The sky didn't fall. The building didn't crumble. The oceans didn't boil.
Baylor is the Big 12 champion after a 74-71 win against West Virginia.
Correction: Baylor is still the Big 12 champion.
Partly that's because Sims shook off any momentary discomfort and returned midway through the first half. It's certainly in part because of the jumper she hit with 53 second left in the game to put her team ahead for the final time in a roiling second half that saw the lead change hands more than half a dozen times in the final seven minutes.
Mostly it's because Baylor is still a pretty good basketball team. Still the best team in the Big 12.
"What makes this particular team special is I'm not sure what the expectations were for this basketball team this year," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said after a fourth consecutive championship. "I couldn't tell you at the beginning of the season what I thought they should be. I knew we had Odyssey Sims. I knew what she was capable of doing, but I didn't know about anybody else around her. ...
"I think that everybody now sees that as good as Odyssey is, we're pretty good when she's not on the floor, too."
The Lady Bears were good when Sims wasn't on the floor Monday against one of the best defensive teams in the country. They were even good when Nina Davis wasn't on the floor, either, which is impressive considering if they weren't going to rely on Sims, you kind of thought they would need the freshman who continued a sensational debut season by earning tournament MVP honors in her stead. But Sims settled for 14 shots on the day and foul trouble limited Davis to nine minutes in the second half.
They were good because someone like Niya Johnson was great, scoring 19 points and adding six assists and three steals.
"I thought the difference for them was Johnson, to be honest with you," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said.
The player who led the nation in scoring in the regular season at better than 30 points per game averaged 17 points in three conference tournament games. The player who averaged 43.5 points in two games against West Virginia in the regular season scored 19 points on Monday night. Good -- borderline outstanding -- for most. Mortal for Sims.
It didn't matter. Baylor was down 5-0 when Sims left early in the game. The Lady Bears went on a 9-0 run. In each of the first two games between the teams, Baylor players not named Sims totaled 30 points. They matched that with four minutes to spare in the first half Monday and finished with 55 points to buttress the 19 Sims scored.
The season has been a process for Baylor, full of fits and starts, ups and downs. Growing is like that. Even as the Lady Bears closed in on the regular-season title, Sims totaled 57 shot attempts and committed 18 turnovers in a pair of games against Oklahoma and West Virginia. Baylor won the former but lost the latter, and with it sole claim to the title. Balance had been lost.
"She was trying to do too much, and she felt like she had to carry too much of a load for her," associate head coach Bill Brock said. "She's just a very competitive person, and people with those kind of personalities just want to lead their team. Sometimes, you know, she would get in a situation where she would maybe over-dribble or get too deep on the dribble penetration or something like that. But she really has gotten better -- it's something we keep trying to emphasize, trust your teammates."
If that team had showed up in this game, West Virginia would be taking a trophy back to Morgantown. The Mountaineers were certainly good enough to win it -- they are certainly good enough to reach a regional final and maybe even Nashville in the NCAA tournament. A bounce here or a call there and we would be talking about the star Bria Holmes could be.
That also makes what Johnson and others accomplished that much more impressive. They had to beat a really good team.
"I knew coming in that they were going to focus on Odyssey and Makenzie [Robertson]," Johnson said. "So I just knew I had to contribute as well in the offense because they knew I could still pass. I had to be aggressive and look to score, as well, because that would spread the offense and help give Makenzie and Odyssey open shots."
Johnson scored going to the basket and she scored on midrange jumpers. Most important, for someone who entered the game shooting just 67 percent from the free throw line, she didn't miss from there. Not early and not late, with the lead hanging in the balance. Not on any of her nine attempts.
|Freshman Nina Davis made 8 of 11 shots for 16 points, despite being in foul trouble.|
It was a breakthrough scoring performance for someone whose previous career high through nearly the first half of her career was 10 points. Mostly Johnson is a playmaker, among the NCAA leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio and the Big 12 leader in assists. Except that as Mulkey was quick to point out afterward, this is a kid who scored 50 points in a high school game.
Actually, Johnson said later by way of clarification, she did that twice.
She didn't have to learn how to score in college. She had to forget how to score to play the role required. At least until Monday.
Johnson was ready for a game like this. It's hard to pinpoint when that threshold was passed, but it was.
"I saw Niya, in the UConn game there last year, really deliver the ball to players at the right time," Mulkey said. "I thought, 'This kid's going to be good.' So as you think about the future of your program and the changes you're going to have to make offensively, I knew then I had to have both Niya and Odyssey on the floor together. She just directs traffic for you. She has a knack for pushing the ball up the floor, a knack for getting it to the right people and giving them passes that they can do something with. But, yeah, she can score."
And it wasn't just Johnson on this night or Davis throughout the tournament. Freshman Sune Agbuke totaled eight points and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes. Playing most of the second half with Davis in foul trouble, freshman Khadijiah Cave finished with seven points and six rebounds. With about five minutes remaining, she missed back-to-back free throws, squandering a nice pass from Sims off a dribble drive. Less than a minute later, she collected the offensive rebound after Sims forced a shot and put her team back in the lead.
Both young post players, along with Davis when she was in the game and with help from the guards, took West Virginia's Asya Bussie out of the game.
Sims really will be gone next year. Not for a few minutes with a sore ankle but for good to the WNBA. Will Baylor still be the best team in the Big 12? Time will tell.
Or Johnson will tell you. Either way.
"The talent is there," Johnson said. "Next year we're going to be just as good as we are this year. The talent is there."