- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Brittney Griner's departure was supposed serve up some hope to Big 12 opponents held under her thumb the past three seasons. Nowhere was that more the case than in Norman, where Oklahoma was both the last team still a part of the conference to win a title before Baylor's run began and the preseason favorite to end it this season.
Well, Monday night came and went in the Lloyd Noble Center, and after Baylor's 81-67 win against Oklahoma, the conference race has a distinctly familiar look. Beyond the halfway mark of the conference season, and with the bulk of their most difficult Big 12 road trips behind them, the Lady Bears are 9-1 in the league and alone in first place.
Same as it ever was.
They did it Monday night the same way they have all season. By at times handing the ball to Odyssey Sims and getting out of her way, yes, but also by grinding hope out of their opponent.
Rebound by rebound by rebound.
Paced by Nina Davis and Sune Agbuke with 14 rebounds each, Baylor finished with a 49-38 advantage on the boards. Within even that advantage, Baylor also finished with 16 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points.
The great unanswered question entering the season was what Baylor would do without not just Griner but Brooklyn Pope, Destiny Williams, Jordan Madden and Kimetria Hayden. Monday was the answer on display. Sims finished with a game-high 27 points, but in a physical game (45 fouls called) and key players on both teams in foul trouble, including three disqualifications for the Sooners, Baylor gave itself more chances to survive.
Even if the person most familiar with the roster wasn't sure what to expect when the season began, either.
"You knew you had Odyssey, and you knew what she brought to the table, but I really didn't have expectations of what I thought," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of replacing her five leading rebounders. "I knew that our bigs, Kristina Higgins and Sune [Agbuke], guarded Griner every day in practice, and that had to make them better defensively. And it had to make them tougher. I'm very skeptical to tell you that I really knew until they were out there on the floor."
En route to those Big 12 titles the past three seasons, Baylor averaged 14.4, 14.6 and 13.4 offensive rebounds per game, respectively. Mulkey's team topped that with 16 against Oklahoma and still saw its average drop slightly to 18.8 per game this season. Only one team in the Big 12 is within even 90 offensive rebounds of Baylor.
All of this with a starting lineup that features Makenzie Robertson starting as a small forward alongside Sims and Niya Johnson and a rotation that no longer includes injured Alexis Prince. That makes three guards and one starter taller than 5 feet, 11 inches.
"You look at my perimeter players now that Prince is not in the lineup and she's injured, I'm really small on the perimeter compared to what we have been," Mulkey said. "When you have Niya and Odyssey and Makenzie out there, those guys are battling for three and four and five rebounds a night to help those post players. But offensive rebounding, we're going in there.
"Now maybe what we need to do better is what are we doing once we get those second rebounds. Are we being very productive? Maybe not as productive as we'd like to be, but at least we're getting another shot at it."
Early in the game, Oklahoma played Baylor to a standstill for most of the shot clock on a possession and eventually forced Johnson to shoot a contested jumper. That is how a defense would draw up a defensive stand against Baylor, except that Davis slipped inside a box out, got the rebound and put it back in for two points.
With the half winding to a close and Sims out for a breather, Oklahoma again got a stop, only to see Baylor tip the rebound out of a crowd and Robertson dive on the floor for it to force a jump ball and retain possession.
Just two examples out of many. Oklahoma might well have reason to gripe when it looks at a bevy of close foul calls that went against it, eventually leading to Aaryn Ellenberg and Sharane Campbell fouling out early in the second half, but Baylor also put itself in position to benefit by closing off the defensive boards and creating extended possessions.
Even with Ellenberg and Campbell unavailable, Oklahoma made a run midway through the second half. When T'ona Edwards completed a three-point play with just more than 12 minutes remaining, drawing the third foul on Sims in the process, the deficit shrank to 10 points and spurred the crowd to try and impose its voice on the game. But after the teams traded three successive turnovers, Davis pogoed a putback on a missed jumper and pushed the lead back to 12 points. Seconds later, Sims came up with a turnover and raced the other way for a layup. One rally quelled.
At 5-11, Davis has 86 offensive rebounds in 22 games. Griner led Baylor with 99 in 36 games a season ago.
Call her undersized at your own peril.
"I think it's a major motivation," Davis said. "When people see me and they see that I'm undersized, they feel like they probably have a better chance of getting a rebound or scoring underneath. So I just come in, quiet, I guess you could say more like a silent assassin. And I kind of sneak up on them, and I rebound and score."
She had a double-double by halftime and finished the game with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Logically no one basket or rebound is more valuable than another, but time and again Monday it felt like hers drained energy out of the Sooners, game as they were, like an energy bar in a video game. Oklahoma never gave up, but it did get worn down.
People will say great rebounders are born not taught, but that doesn't mean there isn't a great deal of work involved.
"Being smaller than other people, I knew I had to find other ways to get rebounds because I was always undersized," Davis said. "So growing up, I did a lot of footwork drills, a lot of different jumping things so I could get my jumping ability up. I did a lot of footwork so I could get my quickness up."
Mulkey noted the improvement she has seen from the start of the season to now in her team's balance. That was true against Oklahoma, as Davis, Imani Wright and Khadijiah Cave all bettered their season averages. It might well be true beyond the night. But it's also true that Sims has carried an even greater share of the offensive burden since the start of the conference season, taking more than 36 percent of her team's shots.
It will always be a team that rises and falls with Sims. She will always have to come through.
But we knew that would be part of Baylor's identity this season. What we're learning is it's also a group that makes a first impression by getting second chances.
"You don't ever relax on the road, you don't ever relax when you're playing a conference game and you sure don't ever relax when you've got as many freshmen and sophomores as we have," Mulkey said. "They've never been here. They don't know anything about OU. They don't know anything about the intensity of coming here to play."
The result sure looked familiar.