Sims soaring through senior season

Odyssey Sims has been important to Baylor from the first minute of her freshman season. But in her last year of college, it's as if she has gone from being a member of a really good band to becoming the lead vocalist. It's her turn to be in the spotlight, and wow, has she proved ready for that.

Heading into a Big Monday showdown with No. 1 UConn (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET), Sims is leading Division I women's basketball in scoring, averaging 31.8 points. She has scored 40 or more points three times this season for Baylor (14-1), including a career-high 48 against West Virginia on Jan. 8.

Sims has as many steals (31) as turnovers, along with 67 assists. She is shooting 51.6 percent from the field, including 45.2 percent from 3-point range (47 of 104). The 5-foot-8 guard is at 81.8 percent from the foul line and adds 4.3 rebounds a game. Baylor's Kim Mulkey has called Sims the best on-ball defender she has ever coached. Oh, and Sims is also the emotional leader of a young squad that lost five seniors, including 2013 WNBA top draft pick Brittney Griner.

"I do have a big role on this team, and I've embraced it," Sims said. "I'm proud of it. I've always been a leader, but I guess it's coming out more than ever this year. I took lessons from the players who were older than me, and no matter what, I always stay positive."

Now that we've clearly established just how great a senior season Sims is having, let's address the huge challenge she and the Lady Bears are about to face: the top-ranked, defending NCAA champion Huskies.

UConn will visit the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, on Monday, and Baylor's 69-game home-court winning streak is on the line.

Guess who has been at Baylor for all 69 of those victories? Sims, of course. She and fellow senior starter Makenzie Robertson have never lost at home. In fact, the only Baylor player who has any experience with leaving the Ferrell Center on a down note is redshirt senior Mariah Chandler, who was a freshman the last time Baylor lost at home: March 7, 2010, versus Texas.

That was Griner's freshman season, and the Lady Bears went to the Final Four later that season, where they lost to eventual champion UConn. That 2010 matchup at the Alamodome in San Antonio was the first meeting between UConn and Baylor. There have been three games since between the programs.

The next season, the Huskies and Lady Bears met in Hartford, Conn., and UConn got a thrilling 65-64 victory on Nov. 16, 2010. That was the rookie Sims' fourth collegiate game, and her national-television debut. She came off the bench to score 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, with 6 rebounds and 3 steals. The real deal? Yeah, it was obvious just in that game.

The subsequent two contests between UConn and Baylor have gone the Lady Bears' way: Baylor won 66-61 on Dec. 18, 2011, in Waco, and then 76-70 on Feb. 18, 2013, in Hartford.

That most recent matchup with UConn was the last game in which Sims was held below double digits in scoring. She had an off night shooting then -- 3-of-15 for nine points -- but had seven assists and no turnovers.

The fact is, Sims' scoring ability has never been in doubt. She averaged 13.1 points as a freshman, 14.9 as sophomore and 12.9 as a junior. But in those seasons, she was more the complementary, setup player -- for Griner, especially -- with assist totals of 111, 174 and 184.

This season -- with Griner, Destiny Williams, Brooklyn Pope, Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden gone -- Sims is the focal point of everything Baylor does. But Sims also concentrates a lot on empowering her teammates. It's probably not a coincidence, though, that in Baylor's only loss thus far -- a 133-130 four-overtime epic with Kentucky -- Sims fouled out. She had 47 points in that game.

Sophomore guard Niya Johnson leads Baylor in assists with 102, and she also has just 31 turnovers. Freshman forward Nina Davis is the only Baylor player besides Sims who's averaging in double figures scoring, at 14.4.

Sims is getting the bulk of the minutes, as is to be expected, with 30.5 per game. Robertson, Johnson and Davis are the only other players to average 20 minutes or more.

Which means viewers will tune in to Monday's game and see a UConn team that still looks very familiar to them -- the Huskies have lost two key contributors, Kelly Faris and Caroline Doty, from the 2013 national champions -- versus a Baylor squad in which Sims is surrounded by several players who previously were more in reserve roles or are freshmen.

Sims knew all this was coming, of course, and was prepared to have a different leadership role as a senior. She has long been the floor general, but her first three years, it was mostly with players older than her.

"We are very young," Sims said. "But no matter what the young ones do, I pat them on the back. If we turn it over, make a bad pass, I tell them it's going to be OK. I don't want to lead in a negative way.

"It starts in practice. Then I go into every game with a mindset of no matter what happens, I can't let my team see me get rattled. I can't show the body language that isn't positive. That's the biggest thing for me … I have to keep my composure no matter what."

But if any team can force even the most determined player to hang her head, it's UConn. The Huskies are a consistently brilliant program on both offense and defense; they rarely have a bad game on one end of the court, and virtually never on both ends.

Sims knows very well what she's up against. For that matter, so do the Huskies. How will they defend her? We can't expect UConn to give away its game plan. But for a general answer on how the Huskies typically deal with a team that has a very dominant scorer, you can look at how the program historically has played.

UConn doesn't subscribe to the theory of "Just give the superstar her points, and try to shut down everybody else." The Huskies want to shut down the superstar.

"We tend to try to do what we can to keep that player from touching the ball as much," UConn senior guard Bria Hartley said. "I feel like if that player goes off and scores her points, that's going to give that team momentum. So if you can limit the player who makes the other team 'go,' that's more effective.

"There's going to be a lot of focus on defending the perimeter now against Baylor. Odyssey is so much of their offense, and we'll probably be defending her as a unit. She's a great player."

Hartley is having a heck of a senior season herself, though, averaging 13.8 points, second to sophomore Breanna Stewart's 18.1. Hartley has 76 assists, second on the team to Moriah Jefferson's 79.

Hartley and Sims got to know each other better this summer, as they were roommates with the U.S. team at the World University Games in Russia. Also on that gold medal-winning squad was UConn junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

Hartley (13.5 PPG), Mosqueda-Lewis (13.0) and Sims (12.7) led the Americans in scoring, and Sims had a team-best 32 assists.

"I enjoyed playing on that team with Odyssey," Hartley said. "That was a situation where I was more of the 2-guard, and she really pushed it in transition and I was able to get up the floor. She would find me.

"Our personalities meshed pretty well. We enjoyed talking about music, and she's a fun person to be around."

Monday, though, Hartley, Mosqueda-Lewis and the rest of the Huskies will be doing whatever they can to give Sims her first loss at the Ferrell Center. The previous time UConn played there, Hartley had a team-high 25 points in the Huskies' loss.

There was a different dynamic then: Baylor was the favorite in that December 2011 game, and would go on to win the national championship that season. This time, unbeaten UConn comes in a big favorite.

"It's different being an underdog, but at the same time we kind of like it," Sims said. "One thing we talk about is that this might be a surprise year for us; you never know. We're not a bad team. We did lose a lot of size and experience, but we're still athletic. We can still run on teams and press. We still play good defense.

"I am looking forward to playing UConn. I got to know Bria more over the summer, and she's really cool. She's a great player that I respect. We'll just do what we can to get ready for them."