Mulkey's spirit shows in Lady Bears
Coach fought through Bell's palsy to lead Baylor to second title
DENVER -- With a little more than three minutes left in the game and her team up by more than 20 points, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey watched Notre Dame reserve guard Kaila Turner go down to the other end of the floor and hit a 3-pointer.
Mulkey stood next to her bench and shook her head in disgust.
There's no sitting in Mulkey's world, only standing almost to the final seconds of her team's 80-61 victory over Notre Dame in Tuesday night's national championship game.
She shouted instructions, directed, gestured and clapped.
"I can't help it," Mulkey said. "I coach 'em to the bitter end. My players deserve that."
It wasn't until she took the last of her starters out with 1:04 to go that she finally stopped coaching. She put her hands to her face, seemingly holding back tears, and wrapped star Brittney Griner in a lengthy embrace as her bench began to celebrate the Lady Bears' extraordinary accomplishment.
The win makes it a historic 40-0 for the Lady Bears, led there by the irrepressible Mulkey, for whom winning is as natural as breathing.
She won a championship as a player for Louisiana Tech in 1982. She won an Olympic gold medal in 1984. She won a title as an assistant coach for the Lady Techsters in1988. And, she won her first NCAA title as Baylor coach in 2005.
And now another on a snowy night in Denver as she becomes the fifth coach to win multiple championships.
This season will be remembered for Baylor's absolute domination and Mulkey's deft shepherding of the nation's biggest star in Griner and some huge, unrelenting expectations.
"This is not about me, this is about these kids," Mulkey said on the court after hoisting the championship trophy and immediately handing it back to her players. "They let me coach them. I have played this game. They play hard for me because I know what buttons to push."
Indeed. But Mulkey doesn't so much push them as much as she jumps up and down on them.
"She would talk trash to keep us motivated, make us play harder," guard Odyssey Sims said.
Her team's relentless style, its aggression and toughness -- it's all a reflection of Mulkey, who coached the last part of this NCAA tournament with Bell's palsy, a neurological condition that has left her with paralysis on the left side of her face.
The truth is, it has made her life more difficult but not her job.
The team she had led this far was plenty capable of taking it to the finish line.
"She would never tell us how much it was bothering her," said Mulkey's daughter, Makenzie Robertson, a reserve guard. "But she would feel so bad because she was trying to get her words out and do everything she could. She just kept apologizing, and we'd say, 'No, it's fine. Don't worry.'"
Baylor senior Terran Condrey said Mulkey gave this team "everything she had."
"She comes to work every day ready for us to work, and we come every day wanting to work," Condrey said.
Mulkey admitted in a quiet moment after the game, that the past week has been very uncomfortable. She has spent large stretches of time wearing sunglasses, shielding her eyes from bright lights during media interviews, wiping tears from her left eye, fighting through the sensation that she's blown an eardrum on her left side.
"It's been very hard, between my eyes and the ringing in my ears, it's like I'm not here," Mulkey said in the hallway, outside the team's locker room. "I've had trouble focusing on things."
Mulkey will also tell you, now that the championship is in the bag, that it wasn't hard to manage this team this season. And she'll acknowledge that it helped to have so much talent.
"They didn't get rattled, they just kept moving forward to the next game," Mulkey said.
But Griner tells a slightly different story.
"We had to calm her down," Griner said. "She was always asking us, 'Can I sleep good tonight?' and we would say, 'Coach, we got it.'"
Mulkey said the relief she feels is for her players, particularly Griner and Sims and Jordan Madden, who have never won a title at any level.
"I've done this since I was 18 years old, and I played for national championships, I've won Olympic gold medals and I know what it feels like," Mulkey said. "My joy now, in coaching, is I want my players to feel what I've been blessed to feel for years.
"The joy for me is to watch all those Baylor people out there, on the big stage, and feel good and feel important. That makes me happy."