WACO, Texas (AP) — NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo and Caitlin Bickle got to Baylor together and were part of a national championship as freshmen in 2019. They all had a decision to make following an unexpected coaching change after last season.
Smith, Egbo and Bickle all opted to stay when WNBA coach Nicki Collen took over after three-time national champion coach Kim Mulkey left for LSU in her home state. The senior trio now finally gets to play in another women’s NCAA Tournament at home.
“I just felt like I had already gave this program so much. I didn’t want to just leave it all behind,” said Smith, who this week named an AP All-American for the second season in a row.
Baylor (27-6) won its 12th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title and will host NCAA games for the 10th time. It is only the second time for Smith, Egbo and Bickle at home. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 tourney, and the entire field played last year in a San Antonio-based bubble.
The Bears, the No. 2 seed in the Wichita Regional, play 15th-seeded Hawaii (20-9) on Friday in the first tournament game for the Rainbow Wahine since 2016. That follows SEC team Ole Miss (23-8), the WNIT runner-up last season, taking on 10th-seeded South Dakota (27-5) from the Summit League.
“We’re lucky to be at home. We’re lucky to have a fairly normal routine,” Collen said. “Other than that, I can promise you had we had control of our schedule today, we would not be practicing when our men are playing.”
Instead, Baylor’s assigned on-court practice session happened while the men were playing less than 100 miles from the Waco campus, and beat Norfolk State 85-49 in their first-round game.
The Baylor women lost to Texas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game last Sunday, when Smith left the game for a bit with a leg injury.
“Quite frankly, we’re just happy NaLyssa is healthy, that we’re going to get full-strength NaLyssa and not have lingering effects of that collision,” Collen said. “I don’t think anyone feels good about how we played in that game. But I think the reality is, I don’t think it took anybody’s confidence away from how we’ve played down the stretch.”
South Dakota is in its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament under coach Dawn Plitzuweit, and fifth for the Summit League champions in their 10 eligible seasons.
The Coyotes (27-5) are led by conference player of the year Chloe Lamb (16.0 points a game) and Summit defensive player of the year Hannah Sjerven (14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds a game).
One of the biggest challenges in their NCAA opener will be facing 6-foot-5 center Shakira Austin, the Ole Miss senior and former Maryland transfer who averages 15.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. She is an AP All-American honorable mention for the second time.
“She’s someone who can find ways to score over the top of you, to get around you, to kind of hang and score. She such a great offensive rebounder, a great shot blocker,” Plitzuweit said. “Certainly, we’re going to have to be very aware and we’re going to have to find ways to commit more than one player to try to slow her down to the best of our ability, without putting us in a position where we’re giving too much else up.”
USED TO BE A REGULAR
Ole Miss is playing in its first women’s NCAA Tournaments in 15 years.
The Rebels (23-8) used to a regular in the field, playing in the first 11 women’s NCAA tourneys from 1982-92, and 14 of the first 15, when Van Chancellor was their coach. This is now only their fourth in 26 seasons.
Ole Miss was also the No. 7 seed in its last tourney in 2007, and made it to the NCAA Elite Eight in its last 20-win season until now. The WNIT last year was their fifth since then.
“The NIT was perfect for us. We were able to get five games in with such a young team. The majority of my team last year was freshmen,” fourth-year coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin. “The majority of my team last year also had never had postseason experience. That experience is something we have used to continue on the momentum this whole season.”
LIKE HOME IN HAWAII
While more than 3,700 miles from home, the Rainbow Wahine should have a familiar feeling at the Ferrell Center on the Baylor campus in Waco, Texas.
Hawaii’s home arena, the Stan Sheriff Center built in 1994, was modeled after the Ferrell Center. Other than the team logos on the floors and the golden paint on Baylor’s rof, the two arenas are near identical replicas.
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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