Baylor's 'work in progress' still looks pretty good

Mulkey: Baylor is 'a work in progress' (1:01)

Mulkey: Baylor is 'a work in progress' (1:01)

AUSTIN, Texas -- In "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" fashion, Baylor ended Texas' undefeated run Sunday afternoon. Yet the takeaway from Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was that her Lady Bears still aren't really that great yet.

She used the phrase "work in progress," which is a particularly hackneyed part of the standard coach lexicon. That doesn't mean it's not true, though. Yes, there does appear to be another gear for Baylor to go to this season.

But the one the Lady Bears were in Sunday at the Erwin Center looked pretty sleek. They won 80-67, spoiling a big day for Texas. The majority of the crowd of 8,996 was wearing burnt orange and fervently cheering on the No. 4 Longhorns.

"I want to say how impressed I was with the turnout today," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "Haven't seen that kind of electricity in the Erwin Center in a women's game in over 10 years."

Well, at least not directed toward the Longhorns. In February 2013, a crowd listed at 9,192 showed up for the Baylor-Texas game here in Austin, but more to see the Lady Bears and then-senior Brittney Griner.

You'll recall the unpleasant way that 2012-13 season ended for Baylor, with a mammoth upset loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16. Crushing as that was for a Baylor program then attempting to win back-to-back national championships, it just meant a new challenge for Mulkey.

She and Baylor transitioned from having superstar center Griner as the main threat to guard Odyssey Sims leading the way in 2013-14, and then to undersized forward Nina Davis as Baylor's All-American catalyst last season.

This year, Baylor has not just Davis with huge scoring potential, but guard Alexis Jones, too. Jones spent her first two seasons at Duke, then after an ACL injury on one knee and microfracture surgery on the other knee, Jones opted to come back home to Texas to finish out her college career.

Jones, who had played prep basketball with Sims at MacArthur High in Irving, Texas, sat out last year as a transfer to Baylor. She's steadily getting back to her "old self" as she says, and Sunday's game was an exclamation point on a week of Jones displaying her progress.

She had a career-high 29 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 3 assists against the Longhorns. Tuesday against West Virginia, Jones scored 20 points. Asked if she felt any special motivation Sunday, Jones said it came mostly from hearing Mulkey stress that this, frankly, wasn't just any old game.

"It was the coaches telling us how big a rivalry this was, and I just wanted to be a part of it," Jones said. "I think that we all had that same energy and fight like the coaches did to come in here. Everybody on the team did exactly what we were supposed to do, and what we practiced."

Chasing Baylor

On the other side, Texas seniors Imani Boyette and Empress Davenport said afterward that they didn't see the Baylor game as more significant than any other game they have to play.

And while that surely had to do with the sting of losing, Boyette also had been reticent to address Baylor before Sunday's game, saying that she didn't really like to talk about opponents.

That might be, but to catch the best, you have to acknowledge that you're chasing them. And that's what everyone in the Big 12 has been doing in regard to the Lady Bears. Baylor has won or shared the past five Big 12 regular-season titles and taken six of the past seven league tournaments.

Mulkey sort of shrugged off the fact that Baylor has now beaten Texas 12 times in a row when asked about it by the media, but you can be sure she knew exactly how long the streak was.

She acknowledged making certain that her team knew going in the significance of beating Texas, which is just down Interstate 35 about an hour and a half from Baylor. After all, it's a constant battle to impress recruits, and the Lady Bears have been able to claim bragging rights for quite a while now.

Is there some tension between these programs? It would be hard to believe it if someone claimed there wasn't. But by the same token, both know that games that generate interest like Sunday's did are beneficial to both.

Baylor, ranked No. 6 with just one loss -- to Oklahoma State -- seemed in control for much of the matchup. Davis, who had struggled the past two games -- two points against TCU and six against West Virginia -- was back to normal Sunday. She had 24 points; both she and Jones went 8-of-8 from the foul line.

But remember what Mulkey said: That the Lady Bears are still trying to completely click.

"Think about what I'm telling you," Mulkey said, anticipating that some would scoff at her "work in progress" line. "Alexis Jones sits out a whole year with two bad knees; she's trying to find her way back. Nina has had two pretty bad games for Nina.

"Niya Johnson is gimpy with an ankle. [Redshirt junior guard Alexis] Prince is not full speed. And I've got two freshmen who are playing valuable minutes. This win today doesn't win a championship for us. But it gives us more confidence that we're heading in the right direction. And a road win is just big. When you're doing it against a team that's undefeated, it shows what I've said, 'Patience is a virtue.' We're going to get there."

Coming together

Odds are, in the first dozen adjectives you'd use to describe Mulkey, "patient" would not be mentioned. But no coach compiles the résumé she has -- which includes two NCAA titles -- without the ability to nurture and mold players and teams.

This rendition of Baylor is not drastically different from last season, when the Lady Bears fell for the second consecutive year in the Elite Eight to Notre Dame. Like last season, they have a little-heralded senior center who does a lot of little things right, especially on defense. In 2014-15, that was Sune Agbuke, who averaged 19.5 minutes per game. This season, it's Kristina Higgins, who is averaging 14.3 minutes.

"It gives us more confidence that we're heading in the right direction. And a road win is just big. ... We're going to get there." Kim Mulkey on what Sunday's win does for Baylor

To look at just the box score Sunday, you wouldn't see much from Higgins, who was 0-of-2 from the field. But Mulkey praised her defense on Texas' top scorer and rebounder, Boyette.

Boyette still ended up with 15 points and 17 rebounds. But Higgins and other Lady Bears defenders made it hard for Boyette to really get into a rhythm. Plus, Boyette had seven of Texas' 21 turnovers, which definitely hurt the Longhorns' offense.

It would be very far off base to say Texas got nothing out of Sunday; the Longhorns have been trying to boost their attendance and recapture some of their past magic. And despite the loss, the atmosphere at this game showed they've made progress toward that. Plus, they are still tied atop the Big 12 with the Lady Bears at 5-1.

But the Baylor fans, ultimately, were the ones who left the Erwin Center happiest. Including David Jones, Alexis' father and former club-team coach. David was paralyzed in a 2007 car accident when he was driving Alexis to a basketball event along with some of her teammates and her younger brother, Andrew.

None of the children was physically injured, but it was emotionally very difficult for the Jones siblings as their father had to adjust to life in a wheelchair and was then no longer actively coaching them.

Alexis transferred from Duke to Baylor in part because she missed her father being able to come to a lot of games. As the Lady Bears wrapped up their victory Sunday, David smiled and said that he hadn't realized just how much he would enjoy having Alexis back close to home.

David was dressed in Baylor green Sunday, but he'll be going to the Erwin Center next season wearing burnt orange, too: Andrew Jones, one of the top prep guards in this year's senior class, has committed to play at Texas.

"I told my kids the other day, 'I think we've really been blessed,'" David said. "We all survived that accident. Now they're able to play basketball and get a degree. I'm grateful."

David also said that he has told Alexis that she plays best when she relaxes and enjoys herself a little more on court. He said he's starting to see that more now from her.

Mulkey, meanwhile, is seeing Jones -- and the rest of the Lady Bears -- starting to round into form.

"Focus and paying attention was a big part of us growing up," Mulkey said. "They listened in the timeouts and the scouting reports. It's part of a team developing and working together to become a better team."