Baylor makes first Final Four trip in school history

The message on the Baptist church marquee near the Baylor campus lists what's important to people in the excited college town: "He is Risen ... Go Lady Bears."

About 100 people were waiting when the Lady Bears got back to Waco about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, just hours after their win in Arizona over top-seeded North Carolina that earned them a spot in their first NCAA Final Four. Players and coaches hugged necks and thanked fans for their support.

When fifth-year Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson turned on her cell phone after the game, her voice mail was so full with messages that it wouldn't take anymore. Her e-mail account was inundated with congratulatory messages.

"I'm tired, yet when you win and are heading to a Final Four, I guess you keep moving," Mulkey-Robertson said by phone Tuesday afternoon from her office on the Waco campus. "It's so exciting for the university and our community. You can't put a dollar value on the positive publicity these girls have brought to the university."

The Lady Bears (31-3) have already won their first Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships this season. They had never been to an NCAA regional final before Monday night.

"Words that come to mind are awesome and amazing. Kim has put together a wonderful program," said Sharon Barr, a Waco restaurant
owner who has a basketball autographed by the team prominently displayed behind the counter. "Everybody in Waco is so proud of the program and what it's become."

The women are giving the Baylor community a reason to celebrate, nearly two years after the tragic death of men's basketball player Patrick Dennehy. His former teammate, Carlton Dotson, goes on trial for murder this summer.

There have been other healing moments, with Baylor track stars Jeremy Wariner and Darold Williamson winning gold medals at the Olympics, the men's tennis team winning the school's first NCAA championship last spring and the football team's upset win at home over Texas A&M in October. But the Lady Bears have provided a full season of positive moments.

"I think it's one of the best things that could happen in light of what's happened with the heartache of the last few years," Waco stockbroker Randy Sage said. "This is one of the best things that's happened in the sporting arena around Waco. I'm terribly excited."

Baylor makes its first Final Four appearance Sunday night in Indianapolis against LSU, a rematch of the season opener that LSU won 71-70.

The Lady Bears had Tuesday off but return to practice Wednesday and Thursday. After Thursday's workout, there will be a sendoff celebration for the Lady Bears before they get on a charter flight to Indianapolis.

"We've been very blessed. Our young ladies, each step of the way, each accomplishment, they've kept it in perspective," Mulkey-Robertson said. "They celebrate just enough, then let it go and move on to the next game. What's really amazing, they just have a sense of hunger about them. We've got another game we've got to prepare for."

Hopefully two more.

Mulkey-Robertson was up early Tuesday taking her two kids to school. They embraced her at midcourt after Monday night's game but were told they had to be in school on time Tuesday if they wanted to go the Final Four.

After that, Mulkey-Robertson and her assistant coaches went to the funeral of Jim Hickey, a retired math professor and avid Baylor sports fan, particularly cheering for the Lady Bears. Hickey died of an apparent heart attack suffered Thursday in Waco while he waited to purchase tickets for their games in Tempe, Ariz.