- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DENVER -- Perfection in women's basketball, NCAA era, has been largely an East Coast thing. Connecticut has had four perfect seasons -- 1995, 2002, 2009 and 2010 -- and carried that mantle with what usually looked like surprising comfort.
"For us, we thought if you started to think about it, that was the day you might lose a game," said UConn senior Tiffany Hayes, who played on two of the unbeaten Huskies teams. "Our coaches did a good job of keeping us level-headed."
This season, perfection is going by a different name: Baylor. The Lady Bears enter the Final Four at 38-0 and are hoping to become the second Division I women's basketball team from the Lone Star State to finish an NCAA season unbeaten; Texas did it in 1986. The other perfect team in the NCAA era, which began in 1981-82, was Tennessee in 1998.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey also experienced perfection when she was a player at Louisiana Tech, which went 34-0 in winning the 1981 AIAW championship. Mulkey this season has downplayed the idea that Baylor could be the first team in the NCAA era to go 40-0, saying that some teams in the AIAW days used to play more than 40 games. Still, it's likely not an accident that Baylor scheduled with the possibility of 40 wins. It could be the Lady Bears' own spin on being perfect.
Talent is the most obvious component of perfection, but there has to be more than that. Avoidance of key injuries, chemistry, focus and in Baylor's case, a very distinct painful memory as motivation.
"Everybody to this day knows their exact feelings after that loss to Texas A&M," Baylor forward Destiny Williams said of the 58-46 Elite Eight defeat at the hands of the Aggies in 2011. "We told each other during the summer and this season that we weren't going to have that feeling again.
"We rushed a lot of things last season. We're on a mission this year, and we've got to stay calm and poised on that mission."
The Lady Bears are focused, but Brittney Griner, the consensus national player of the year, seems happily relaxed in her second Final Four.
"I don't feel any pressure, really," she said. "I kind of tune out everything. This year, that's been the main focus: winning the national championship. That's just what's driving me right now."
Last year, Baylor won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, but they had guard Melissa Jones' eye injury to deal with for the final month of the season. Jones wasn't her normal spark-plug self, and no one on Baylor played up to their normal standards.
"I thought team chemistry was a missing link last year," Mulkey said. "Not that we didn't have a team that didn't get along. But we had a freshman [Odyssey Sims] trying to lead a basketball team to a Final Four. We had our best player just a sophomore [Brittney Griner]. We had our senior -- our captain, our glue -- playing with one eye."
Williams said it bothered her a lot that she was not very aggressive in the game that ended Baylor's 2010-11 season.
"Coming into this year, we lost MJ, and she was so good at helping keep the ball alive offensively," Williams said. "My goal was to pick up where she left off."
The entire Baylor team seems to have followed that mantra. Williams raised her scoring and rebounding averages this season, as did first-team All-American Griner and Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden. Sims also improved her scoring and has had 56 more assists this season. And Jordan Madden became even more of a lockdown defender.
"Jordan Madden's job is to guard the best player on the opposing team, and what a job she's done night in, night out," Mulkey said.
Plus, this season Baylor has been able to stay relatively healthy. The Lady Bears lost redshirt sophomore Shanay Washington, who suffered her fifth ACL injury, on Feb. 21. She had played in 10 games this season, but her role now is to keep the team loose.
"I'm the one who comes up with the one-liners," Washington said. "My favorite target would probably be Brittney. But she's the one who actually says the funny things that you may be thinking that you want to say."
Baylor comes into this Final Four in a different position than the Lady Bears did in their national championship year of 2005, when they were a No. 2 seed and had three losses in the regular season. The NCAA tournament field that year felt somewhat wide open, with Diana Taurasi having graduated after leading UConn to three straight titles.
The 2005 Lady Bears were on their own mission, although it wasn't stated as "NCAA title or bust" in the same relentlessly straightforward way this year's team has approached it. Back then, Baylor was motivated by a two-point loss to Tennessee in the 2004 Sweet 16.
The Lady Bears didn't have the No. 1 target on them the way they do now. How have they handled it? Clearly, very well. Even their pre-game video at home games this season had the message of needing to take care of unfinished business.
"Knowing the personality of my team, they wanted [me] to do that," Mulkey said. "They wanted me to believe in them, and to throw that out there so that they could remain focused every day. I can tell you that not one time this year have we ever felt pressure. We haven't.
"It's just a case of we want to win a national championship. And if we lose it, what have we lost? I mean, we have had a great year."
UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said the Huskies in all their undefeated seasons were able to strike a balance between never getting overconfident yet still maintaining an aura of invincibility.
"We didn't ever get to the point where we thought, 'We're so great, we don't have things to work on,'" Dailey said. "But there's that quiet confidence I think you have to have. We'd never run around and flaunt that; we weren't cocky or overbearing. But when we would walk into a gym, you could tell. I think our teams handled that well with how they approached it internally and externally. So there was that mystique."
Baylor has had that same thing this season, too. The Lady Bears had five victories by single-digit margins -- against Tennessee, UConn, Texas A&M and Texas Tech twice -- but as Mulkey said, they didn't seem rattled even with the closer scores.
"We've all been in tight games, and all four teams have been in blowouts to get here, too," Mulkey said of Baylor, UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford. "I just feel like every day in practice, our competition within the team makes our team better."
19dBonnie D. Ford