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Kalani Brown looks to help lead Baylor back to the Final Four

Kalani Brown is averaging 20.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 29.4 minutes, and shooting 66 percent from the field for Baylor, which has won 30 consecutive games. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Sometimes Kalani Brown just wants to raise her hand and say, "Yeah, I'm ready for a little break now."

But most of the time, Baylor's 6-foot-7 center doesn't do it. The Lady Bears, the No. 2 seed in the Lexington Regional, don't have much depth. That got worse when starting point guard Kristy Wallace suffered an ACL injury in the regular-season finale.

The bottom line is, Baylor needs Brown -- and the rest of its starters -- on the floor a lot.

"It's not something you really plan for, but it's just pure heart," Brown said of how she has learned to push through fatigue. "I'm pretty tough, but ... I also talk to myself. I say, 'I'm not tired, I'm not tired.' I do breathing exercises sometimes. It's different for everybody, I'm sure, but that's what I do."

It has worked out fine so far. Baylor is 33-1 and has won 30 games in a row. The Lady Bears, who have lost in the Elite Eight for four seasons in a row, play No. 6 seed Oregon State in the regional semifinals Friday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

Baylor's only loss came Nov. 18 at UCLA, and neither sophomore forward Lauren Cox (illness) nor coach Kim Mulkey (family issue) were on that trip. The closest game the Lady Bears have played since was a six-point victory at Texas on Feb. 19.

Still, Wallace's injury on Feb. 26 made observers reassess the Lady Bears' chances of reaching the Final Four, which they last made in 2012 when they won the program's second NCAA title. But nothing about the way they've played without Wallace suggests they won't keep making a strong run to Columbus.

Brown, who turned 21 on Wednesday, had been a huge part of everything Baylor has done this season. After being named Big 12 Player of the Year, she also won the conference tournament MVP. The 10 days between the Big 12 championship game and the start of the NCAA tournament was an important time for the Lady Bears to get some rest. Baylor cruised through its two NCAA tournament games, beating Grambling 96-46 and Michigan 80-58.

Brown is averaging 20.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, and her 66 percent field goal shooting is second best in the country to Iowa's Megan Gustafson (67.1), whose team was upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Brown is also averaging 29.4 minutes per game, but she knows the more difficult the opponent, the more she'll need to play.

She played all 40 minutes in the Big 12 final versus Texas and 38 against the Wolverines in the NCAA second round.

During the Big 12 final, she went down hard on one play and struggled to get up because of pain in her left ankle.

"My teammates were telling me that they needed me, and I knew they did," Brown said. "So I was like, 'Give me the ibuprofen, I gotta go back in.' It wasn't that bad."

Then Brown added with a laugh, "I've never really hurt myself. If I ever get hurt for real, I might need a stretcher."

That's the last thing Mulkey wants to think about. Baylor has been through enough this season. Mulkey's daughter, former Lady Bear and current staff member Makenzie Fuller, lost her unborn baby in November just before the UCLA trip. Chameka Scott, a member of Baylor's 2004-05 national championship team, died in January at age 33 after battling cancer.

Then came the injury to Wallace on her senior night. Wallace, a glue-type player who brought so much energy to the Lady Bears, was averaging 12.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists, and leading Baylor in minutes played.

The next game, freshman Alexis Morris had to step into the starting role at point guard.

"It was a big loss, but Kristy is still a leader," Brown said. "And I think Alexis has stepped into her role quite well. She asked Kristy to help her. She asked me and the other upperclassmen to help, too."

Wallace, a senior, and Brown, a junior, had played so much together that a lot of their communication was automatic. Brown said that she, Cox and senior Dekeiya Cohen have had to remember that as good as Morris is, she is still a young player.

"Sometimes she might not pick up on certain defenses, or where we want the ball, so we have to help her with those things," Brown said. "Whereas with Kristy, we knew each other so well. But Alexis has been a quick learner, and she's able to get the ball to us. She's going to be a great player."

Morris has played well since Wallace got hurt, averaging 14.4 points with 22 assists and just 10 turnovers in those five games. And Baylor has looked strong. Brown and Cox, in particular, overpowered both of the Lady Bears' NCAA tournament opponents. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Baylor was as talented as any team the Wolverines have faced this season, which includes Lexington No. 1 seed Louisville and Spokane No. 1 Notre Dame.

"Me and Kalani, we're going to be a matchup disaster for some teams," said the 6-foot-4 Cox, who combined with Brown for 52 points and 32 rebounds against Grambling and 34 and 24 against Michigan. "You have to focus on one of us, and then the other's going to go off."

They'll be going against another talented big woman in Oregon State's 6-5 Marie Gulich in the Sweet 16. Brown was a freshman and Gulich a sophomore in 2016, when Oregon State beat Baylor in the Elite Eight 60-57. Brown had 12 points and six rebounds, while Gulich had four points; both came off the bench in that game.

Baylor has stumbled in the Elite Eight the past four years, losing to Notre Dame in 2014 and 2015, Oregon State in 2016 and Mississippi State last season. The Lady Bears can't think about that, though, because they'll have to get past a tough Beavers squad that upset Tennessee.

But Brown feels good about what Baylor has accomplished so far, and about how she has grown in her third year with the Lady Bears.

"It was my goal to be [Big 12] player of the year," she said. "My coaches were pushing me, saying, 'Don't be content with what you did last year.' I listened to them, and I was rewarded."