<
>

Baylor beats Iowa State with big fourth quarter to win Big 12

From start to finish, Baylor once again dominated the Big 12. Now the Lady Bears set their sights on Tampa and their first Final Four since 2012. Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Baylor's dominance has made the Big 12 women's basketball tournament feel like "Groundhog Day" for a while now. Iowa State did all it could to change the recurring ending Monday night, but the Lady Bears weren't having it.

Baylor won the title for the ninth time in the past 11 years, holding off the Cyclones 67-49 and sending the Lady Bears into the NCAA tournament at 31-1 with a No. 1 seed guaranteed. They have the nation's longest active Division I winning streak at 23 games.

"Were really confident right now," Baylor junior forward Lauren Cox said. "This was good for us; we have a lot of momentum going into the NCAA tournament. We're really focused right now, and everyone has bought in. No one on this team is selfish."

Baylor, which has won 10 Big 12 tournament titles, has made the Big 12 final a snooze-fest in the past by being just too good. But Iowa State, which has not won the Big 12 tournament title since 2001, played with a fire on Monday that put the Lady Bears on their heels a few times.

That changed in the fourth quarter. Like a giant sledgehammer that keeps pounding, Baylor took control, outscoring Iowa State 19-5 and turning a close game into a rout.

"Before the fourth quarter started, I said, 'We're going to bust it open,'" Baylor's Chloe Jackson said. "We were doing a good job defending them all night, but our offense was kind of struggling. I knew we were going to take off."

The Lady Bears got a lift off the bench from NaLyssa Smith, a freshman who looks like a superstar in the making, and Moon Ursin, a gritty sophomore guard grieving the loss of her grandfather a few days ago. Smith finished with eight points, while Ursin sparked Baylor's perimeter defense. Jackson, a grad student in her first year as Baylor's point guard, led the backcourt with 16 points.

Ultimately, Baylor's dynamic post duo, Kalani Brown and Cox, carried the Lady Bears across the finish line. Brown seemed tentative at times, but once she got her motor running, the 6-foot-7 center was tough to stop. She finished with a team-high 17 points, plus seven rebounds and was the Big 12 tournament MVP.

Cox is the feistiest of the Lady Bears, the country's former No. 1-rated recruit who has learned to balance aggression and competitiveness with smart play. She's one of the nation's top post defenders, and has improved her playmaking skills to go along with her scoring prowess. She had 14 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots and was on the all-tournament team.

"She scores, she rebounds, she blocks shots, she defends at multiple positions, she passes the ball," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said of the 6-4 Cox, a junior. "What she does and how she does it really impacts their team."

The Lady Bears completed their second consecutive perfect slate in Big 12 play; their only loss this season was 68-63 in December at Stanford, which won the Pac-12 tournament Sunday.

The only interruptions in Baylor's Big 12 tournament celebrations in the past 11 years came in 2010, when Texas A&M won the title, and in 2017, when West Virginia prevailed. The Aggies have since relocated to the SEC, and no team has stepped forward to consistently challenge the Lady Bears in the Big 12.

Behind Big 12 player of the year Bridget Carleton, Iowa State did the best it could. The Cyclones, who were appearing in their sixth Big 12 final, and first since 2013, are 25-8 and look to host the early rounds in the NCAA tournament with a No. 4 seed. Carleton had 13 points and six rebounds, while Alexa Middleton led Iowa State with 18 points. Both were on the all-tournament team.

Baylor is the No. 1-ranked team in the country, and Iowa State had to face the Lady Bears three times, losing by 15, 13 and 18 points. Fennelly said he told his players in the locker room they won't face a team any tougher than Baylor in the NCAA tournament.

"That hopefully is the message our kids will take out of here," Fennelly said. "We played really well for two games and three quarters [against Baylor]."

Mulkey was hired at Baylor before the 2000-01 season, and under her the Lady Bears have reached the Big 12 tournament final 13 times. Baylor also has won two national championships with Mulkey. The most recent was in 2012, and the Lady Bears have not been back to the Final Four since.

If they go this year, it will be on the strength of Brown and Cox, but also the cohesive unit around them. They're the No. 1-ranked team in the country, and they've been through the disappointment of the NCAA tournament not going the way they hoped for a while now. They've talked in the past few years about changing the script, but it hasn't happened.

They're about to get another chance. And if they play like they did in Monday's fourth quarter, a trip to Tampa and the Final Four could be the reward.

"We have been very fortunate to stay away from injury," said Mulkey, whose team lost senior guard Kristy Wallace to an ACL injury in last year's regular-season finale. "And we've been very fortunate I've got a deep, deep bench, and those kids never pout on you. They pull for each other. They understand their time and their role, and we'll see what we can do."

Brown said the motto the team came up with before the season was TTT: "Together to Tampa."

"It's on our T-shirts and our wristbands; it's a goal that we've set," Brown said. "We need each other, and it's going to take all of us to get to Tampa. And I think we have a really special group."