Kim Mulkey’s hands-off approach keeps No. 1 Baylor rolling

OKLAHOMA CITY — Even after guiding Baylor to the national championship last season with the same group of core players, coach Kim Mulkey still doesn’t understand the way her team goes about preparing to play a game.

With smartphones, televisions, and other technology serving as potential distractions all around the locker room, Mulkey has figured out that her best place to spend her time before the game is anywhere else.

‘‘I just stay away from ’em because the way I get prepared for a game when I was a player and now as a coach is a lot different than young people do,’’ Mulkey said Saturday. ‘‘It’s not that they’re not focused. It’s just away from the court that they’re college kids. Sometimes we forget that.


‘‘So, I learned about their sophomore year to not walk in that locker room before a game because the way I think you should prepare for a game may not be the way they prepare for a game. Whatever they’ve been doing, it’s been successful, and you don’t want to change ’em.’’

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Led by All-American Brittney Griner, the top-ranked Lady Bears (34-1) have won 74 of 75 games leading up to Sunday’s game against No. 5 seed Louisville (26-8) in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16. The other Oklahoma City regional semifinal game pits No. 2 seed Tennessee (26-7) against sixth-seeded Oklahoma (24-10).

All four teams have made it to the Final Four before, although only Baylor has been there with its current nucleus. Griner and her fellow seniors made it to the Final Four in 2010, then lost in the regional finals in 2011 before winning it all last year.

Mulkey said she exerted her influence on this group of players earlier in their careers, making sure all the personalities meshed to create a productive environment for the team. She recalled benching starter Jordan Madden for being too ‘‘silly’’ on the floor at one point.

‘‘When you leave that floor, if they’ve given me everything they have, I have to let them be college kids after I let them out of that locker room,’’ said Mulkey, remembering that she had a bag phone once and there might not have even been a stereo in the Louisiana Tech locker room when she won a national title there.


‘‘It’s the floor that you are mainly concerned about, how they represent you on that floor.’’

So, she’s fine with Griner being a free spirit, Madden being happy-go-lucky, and Brooklyn Pope being sarcastic if the results keep coming. Griner took time to make sure players were seated in what she considered the appropriate spots — with her the farthest right — before Baylor’s question-and-answer session could begin.

‘‘Everybody on this team hates to lose. We love to win. That’s motivation enough right there,’’ Griner said, noting that Mulkey challenges the team to win each segment of the game between timeouts, no matter if the score is lopsided.

Louisville’s Jeff Walz joked twice that he would try to sneak six players onto the court to try to keep it a close game, particularly since the Lady Bears have played just three games decided by single digits this season — including their only loss, at Stanford in November.

‘‘I’ve told our kids, ‘If you come out and play scared, it’s not going to matter,’ ’’ Walz said. ‘‘So we’re going to try to come out and attack.’’


For everyone but Baylor, making it this far has been a matter of persevering through a rash of injuries. The Cardinals absorbed the loss of Tia Gibbs, Asia Taylor, and Shawnta’ Dyer while Monique Reid has been limited by a knee injury. All had starting experience.

Oklahoma has been making it by without the services of do-everything captain Whitney Hand and three others — Kaylon Williams, Maddie Manning, and Lyndsey Cloman — lost to season-ending injuries.

Tennessee’s injuries haven’t been quite as serious, but still plentiful with Cierra Burdick (broken hand), Kamiko Williams (both ankles), Andraya Carter (shoulder surgery), and Isabelle Harrison all getting hurt. Harrison has missed time because of her right ankle and left knee and was wearing a brace on her right knee Saturday while she works back from her latest injury.

Sooners coach Sherri Coale described her team’s struggle through it all as climbing a mountain, slogging through a swamp, and getting stuck in quicksand but still managing to make progress throughout.

‘‘I always have these really smart kids. I can talk around stuff. They’re going to know what’s happening anyway. So, we just call spades spades,’’ Coale said. ‘‘We talk about what an accomplishment this is to be here. We let it sort of sink in . . . Just getting here is not enough. Who is to say what is enough? We believe we have a lot of basketball left in us.’’