- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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WACO, Texas -- Baylor fans came out for an early Christmas party Tuesday night at the Ferrell Center, and their Lady Bears gave it to them.
Tennessee was in town, and even though this is a mostly young, finding-its-identity group of Lady Vols, it's still a big name to fill the arena and pump up the Waconians.
"I thought our defensive intensity was pretty special there at the beginning," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said after a 76-53 no-doubter that sends No. 3 Baylor into its holiday break at 9-1.
Special, indeed: The Lady Vols were down 17-0 after just a little more than five minutes. Whatever unrealistic hopes anyone might have had of this being similar to last year's pre-Christmas showdown between Baylor and UConn were extinguished.
But the Lady Bears fans still had a great time, even if the television audience might have nodded off. This is a season for Baylor backers to truly savor, with such an experienced team loaded with seniors who hope to end their careers with a repeat national championship.
For those wearing green and gold, it was a merry evening start to finish. For those in orange well, it was best summed up by one of Tennessee's players as she walked back to the locker room: "I just want to go home."
The Lady Vols will do that, though, not hanging their heads too much. There's no reason for them to be down. The No. 10 team in the country, Tennessee is 7-2 and learning every day. Including how to deal with adversity.
Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison was out with an ankle injury. And if there's one team you really don't want to face without your starting center, it's Brittney Griner-led Baylor.
So technically, the Lady Vols had eight healthy players Tuesday -- although the stiff way senior Taber Spani was moving with a sore back stretches the definition of "healthy." She was 1 of 12 from the field, symbolizing how difficult Tennessee found the chore of putting the ball through the hoop, especially in the first half.
The Lady Vols trailed 41-16 at the break, having shot 17.9 percent. The game itself was realistically over; what remained to be seen was how focused the Lady Bears could stay for the last 20 minutes before their holiday began.
And to see how much Tennessee could salvage its self-confidence. Which is important, considering the Lady Vols still have a very big pre-Christmas chore in Stanford, which visits Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday.
You could say both teams accomplished what they needed to in the second half. Tennessee at least shot better (41.7 percent). The Lady Vols were led by junior Meighan Simmons with 16 points, and senior Kamiko Williams, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"Once we settled down," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said, "we did a good job in the second half."
But as sophomore Cierra Burdick said, it was tough when the Lady Vols felt as if they were chipping away at Baylor but, "You look up at the score, and you're still down 25."
Meanwhile, Mulkey played all 13 on her roster, an opportunity made possible by the starters producing so well.
Griner (17 points, 12 rebounds) had a double-double, as did fellow senior Brooklyn Pope (11 and 16). Another senior, Nae-Nae Hayden, had 16 points and six assists. Mulkey sent a disciplinary message to Hayden by playing her for just eight minutes in Baylor's win over Notre Dame on Dec. 5.
The message seems to have gotten through; Hayden was back in for 31 minutes against Oral Roberts last Wednesday, then played 28 minutes Tuesday in a very sharp performance.
"Nae-Nae -- you've been waiting for that to happen," Mulkey said. "For her to hit those big shots."
Hayden, who was 4 of 8 from 3-point range said, "I've been in the gym more, shooting. Because I know they're going to double-team Brittney, and we have to make open shots. I was patient."
Meanwhile, Pope's rebounding total was a career high, and this game was indicative of the increased level of her play this year. Pope said, in all seriousness, that it's beneficial that she's getting more sleep, now that she's a graduate student and doesn't have as heavy a class load.
"I don't really do anything but focus on basketball, and that's really helped me," Pope said. "Now I'm playing like I did in high school, where I had no worries."
Mulkey cackled at that, and jumped in to humorously point out that Pope is still going to class -- just not as much class.
"She doesn't have to worry about anything but passing six hours," Mulkey said. "So make sure you all understand; we're not just letting her sit here and eat off of Baylor. It's a little bit different when you've graduated."
Actually, from a basketball standpoint, several of the Lady Bears look like grad students, especially compared to several of the Tennessee youngsters. Heck, we haven't even mentioned junior guard Odyssey Sims, who played a masterful game at point guard with eight points and eight assists.
"You never, ever let them become complacent," Mulkey said of her veterans. "You never let them become bored. [But] what else am I gonna teach them? What I have to do with this bunch is motivate them. I have to get on them, aggravate them, love them, laugh at them, get mad at them. Whatever it takes. I don't take any of them for granted."
And neither should Baylor's fans. These kinds of games are a celebration of a team that's trying to etch its name in with some of the best in women's college history.
"They were ready to go," Mulkey said of her players. "Everybody fed off of each other when the game started."
And they devoured Tennessee.
19dBonnie D. Ford