<
>

After 3-year absence, Baylor aiming to complete Final Four mission

play
Mulkey compliments her players in Baylor win (1:03)

Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey explains how proud she is that her team advanced to the Elite Eight. (1:03)

DALLAS -- Baylor senior Niya Johnson knows all about coming close. She doesn't want to barely miss the Women's Final Four again.

The No. 1 seed Lady Bears will face No. 2 seed Oregon State on Monday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) for the final ticket to Indianapolis. It will be a lot like a home game for Baylor, whose campus is 90 minutes south of American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas.

Baylor fans are eager to make a return trip to Indianapolis, which is where the Lady Bears won their first NCAA title in 2005. They had a chance to go back to the Final Four in Indy in 2011, but lost the regional final to then-Big 12 rival Texas A&M here in this same arena.

In 2012, Baylor went unbeaten on the way to a national championship, but was tripped up in the Sweet 16 on its attempt to repeat.

That 2013 loss to Louisville came when Johnson and her fellow seniors were freshmen. They certainly shared the anguish of the Baylor upper-class players then, but they knew they'd have more chances.

However, the past two years, Baylor has seen its season end in the Elite Eight with losses to Notre Dame. Motivated by the phrase "Eight is NOT enough" this season, Baylor has lost just one game on its path to the regional final.

"This is a different team, but getting to the Elite Eight -- we've been there before," Johnson said. "We've hit that wall, and I hope this year is our year to get past that."

Baylor's lone loss this season was Dec. 30 at Oklahoma State, so it may have seemed surprising when junior standout Nina Davis mentioned the team's "ups and downs" after their dominant 78-58 victory Saturday over No. 5 seed Florida State.

Downs? Plural? When you've only lost one game?

Ah, but the games are all that most people see. Johnson explained later that what Davis is referring to is the highs and lows in practice and during the course of games, even when they ended in victories.

Bringing in a scoring talent such as guard Alexis Jones, a transfer from Duke who redshirted last year, and freshman post players Beatrice Mompremier and Kalani Brown, was great for Baylor in terms of the infusion of talent. But it meant some adjusting of roles for returning players.

"It was a little hard at first, especially with Nina and Alexis, because you've got two great players who want to be leaders," said Johnson, who is the actual on-court leader as point guard. "Sometimes, there were some bumping heads. They both want to be that clutch player, and it took a little while to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and start feeding off each other. That's what we needed.

"I think they've done that. You know Nina Davis is going to do Nina Davis things; you can't compare her to anybody else in the country. But Alexis Jones is also a good shooter, a good passer, and she can defend as well. I think she's come a long way this season."

Johnson is one of the most aware and savvy players at the college level you will find; she is always anticipating the next challenge. She knows that Oregon State has seniors, too, who want to experience the Final Four for the first time, and that the Beavers -- who beat No. 6 seed DePaul 83-71 Saturday --are having quite a fine season themselves.

"They're a team that can really shoot 3's and they have a big presence inside," Johnson said. "You have to execute so well against them, and you have to withstand their runs, because you know they're going to have them."

Johnson had eight points and eight assists in Saturday's victory. She has been one of the best facilitators in the country the past couple of years; she has 987 career assists, 320 coming this season.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has praised Johnson for everything she's done for Baylor, especially the selfless way she's always played.

"I want to get to a Final Four so bad for Niya," Mulkey said. "I just want these [seniors] to go. Their freshman year was [Brittney] Griner's senior year, and everybody thought we were going that year, and we didn't get to go. You just hope and wish things can happen for them."