No. 5 Baylor embracing plenty of early challenges

ESTERO, Fla. (AP) Baylor was unquestionably the elite club in the eight-team Gulf Coast Showcase.

And no, that symmetry wasn't lost on Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey.

Each of the last three seasons has ended the same way for Baylor - with a loss in the regional championship round in the NCAA Tournament, one game shy of getting back to the Final Four. So Mulkey went and made the schedule for this team as brutal as possible, with the hope that whatever lessons get learned now pay off at tourney time.

Early returns are promising. The fifth-ranked Bears (7-1) topped No. 8 Ohio State 85-68 on Sunday to win the Gulf Coast title, capping a very difficult November slate for Mulkey's club. Baylor has already played four ranked opponents, three of them No. 9 or higher.

''It's what we need for late in the season, the playoffs in our Big 12 Conference, to be able to get past that Elite Eight,'' Mulkey said. ''We're tired of finishing in an Elite Eight. We present a schedule to them that makes them have to come from behind, makes them have to work for everything - even if you get beat, there's so much to learn from that.''

And even with three big wins in southwest Florida this weekend, Mulkey and the Lady Bears think they learned plenty.

Baylor's three wins this weekend came by 42 over Kent State, 32 over No. 18 DePaul and 17 points on Sunday, and the reason why the margin over the Buckeyes was that close was the Lady Bears were 19 for 32 from the foul line. The Bears trailed for exactly 6 minutes, 16 seconds in the three matchups, and outrebounded their opponents 156-76 - more than a 2-to-1 edge on the glass.

''We're good. We know we're good. But how good are we?'' Mulkey said. ''The only way you can gauge that is go play other teams across the country that people think are good.''

The only loss so far was at UConn, a game where the Huskies revealed yet another national championship banner and played before a packed house. Baylor didn't succumb that night until the final minutes.

''There's only one team this year that's going to go to Storrs when they drop a banner, and that was us,'' Mulkey said. ''We knew that going in and we need that. We need that environment, we need that type of setting.''

This weekend inside a minor-league hockey arena wasn't about environment or setting. The building held only a couple hundred fans or so for each game, and the chill from the ice below could be felt coming through the court.

It was about the grind of playing three good teams in less than 72 hours, and Baylor came through with flying colors.

''We're looking to get that competition now so we can be ready at the end and embrace the moment,'' Lady Bears standout Kalani Brown said.

There's another big test coming next weekend when Baylor goes to Tennessee in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Then before long, conference play will begin.

''Looking forward to it,'' said Lady Bears guard Kristy Wallace, the MVP of the Gulf Coast tournament. ''It's going to be a challenge. It'll be exciting.''

Last season, Baylor didn't face its third top-10 team until March 7. With this schedule, there's going to be no way Mulkey wonders if her team was properly battle-tested when this season's NCAA Tournament rolls around.

''I know why we did it,'' Mulkey said. ''We're trying to get past the Elite Eight.''

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