Most of the firsts her team has achieved since Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson arrived in Waco, Texas, five years ago have started to run together: the first win over a ranked team, the first appearance in the Top 25, the first NCAA bid. But one first will remain frozen in her memory for some time. After the Lady Bears beat visiting Texas Tech 79--69 on March 3 in front of a record Ferrell Center crowd of 10,550 to secure the program's first conference championship, Mulkey-Robertson experienced what is likely the first surprise ice-water shower ever carried out in front of a hoop stanchion. "We needed to thank the fans," she said a few minutes later, shivering like a wet cat, "and they needed to celebrate."
The No. 5 Lady Bears (27-3) haven't just given their fans something to cheer about, they have also provided a catharsis for a city that has had more than its share of tragedy and image problems. Ten years after the catastrophic 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound linked Waco to religious cults and governmental bungling, the death of men's basketball player Patrick Dennehy stamped Baylor with murder and scandal. The Lady Bears are doing their best to change those associations. "Now when you hear 'Baylor basketball,'" says junior wing Chameka Scott, "hopefully what pops to your mind is, Oh, yeah, those Lady Bears are doing great."
How well are they doing? In a wide-open season that has seen traditional powers yield the spotlight to new players like LSU, Michigan State and Rutgers, the Lady Bears may be the most dangerous team in the NCAA tournament. "No one wants to face them," says Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly. There isn't much Baylor lacks. It boasts the nation's best post tandem in 6'2" senior Steffanie Blackmon and 6'1" junior Sophia Young, who average 33.7 points and 17.6 rebounds between them. The team is second in the nation in three-point shooting (42.5%), and it leads the Big 12 in assists (18.2 per game). Nearly 35% of its scoring comes from its bench, which features several perimeter players who, on any given night, might ride pine the whole game or go off for 20 points. "If you look at a series of box scores on Baylor, it's hard to find a pattern," says Fennelly. "It drives you crazy trying to stay with them."
The Lady Bears also have advantages when it comes to intangibles. Close-game experience? They have been in five games decided by three points or fewer and have won all but the first one, a 71--70 loss to then No. 3 LSU on Nov. 14. Motivation? Last March, Baylor's season ended abruptly in the Sweet 16 when a controversial call gave Tennessee two free throws with 0.2 of a second left; Tasha Butts hit both for a 71--69 victory.
Coach? No one has been more successful in the Big 12 over the last five years than Mulkey-Robertson. While putting together a 125-38 record, she has instilled in her teams much of the fearlessness and aggressiveness that marked her career as a point guard for Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s. "Kim was one of the most competitive players I think our sport has ever had," says Texas coach Jody Conradt. "She refused to lose, and she refused to allow her team to lose. Her [Baylor] team has that same quality."
Mulkey-Robertson won four Louisiana state championships at Hammond High, two national titles at Louisiana Tech and an Olympic gold medal before becoming an assistant at Louisiana Tech in 1985. In her 15 years as one of Leon Barmore's lieutenants, the Lady Techsters made seven Final Fours and won the 1988 national title. At the end of the 2000 season Barmore stepped down so that Mulkey-Robertson could take over. But despite her two decades of loyalty to the school--she had turned down three head coaching jobs over the years--president Dan Reneau refused to give her a long-term deal. Crushed, she accepted an offer from Baylor and moved her husband, daughter and son to Waco. "There was no money issue or anything else; if they had given me a five-year contract, I would still be at Louisiana Tech today," she says. "Thank God for unanswered prayers."
The Lady Bears had had some success in the previous six years under Sonja Hogg, but they had never finished higher than fourth in the conference and had stumbled to a 7--20 finish in Hogg's final season. "When I got my first recruiting letter from Baylor, I wasn't too thrilled," says Scott, a Houston native.
With help from junior college transfer and future All-America Sheila Lambert, the Lady Bears went 48--15, made two NCAA tournaments and gained credibility in Mulkey-Robertson's first two seasons. The prize of her first recruiting class was Blackmon, a star player at Rowlett High in Dallas who came to Baylor in part because Mulkey-Robertson was also willing to take her less-heralded twin sister, Tiffanie, now a team manager. "I also liked this lady and wanted to go play for her," says Blackmon, an academic All-America whose 156 career blocks is a school record. "I liked her attitude, her drive, her belief that we could go somewhere."
A year after Mulkey-Robertson signed Blackmon, Louisiana connections helped her land Young, who grew up running track and playing volleyball and netball, a game similar to six-on-six basketball that uses a net but no backboard, on Saint Vincent in the West Indies. Young had never played basketball until she attended Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., as a sophomore exchange student, and she had to sit out her junior season because state rules prohibit foreign exchange students from playing a sport two years in a row. But after five minutes of watching her jackrabbit hops--Young's vertical leap has been measured at 31 1/2"--during a game her senior year, Mulkey-Robertson vowed to sign Young "before anyone else found out about her."
Despite her inexperience Young averaged a double double (14.2 points, 10.0 rebounds) in her first season at Baylor and became the first freshman in Big 12 or Southwest Conference history to lead the league in rebounding. Blackmon added 17.6 points and 8.0 rebounds a game. After a WNIT championship-game appearance that year, the Lady Bears were on the verge of making a name for the school. Then the men's team beat them to it.
In July 2003 Carlton Dotson was charged with the shooting death of his friend and teammate Dennehy. On Aug. 8 coach Dave Bliss resigned after secretly recorded tapes revealed that he had tried to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer to cover up NCAA violations. Athletic director Tom Stanton stepped down the same day. People who had never heard of Baylor now associated the university with the most heinous of crimes. "It impacted this whole school and all our athletic and academic programs," says Mulkey-Robertson. "I think we didn't even get in the door with some high school players."
Challenged by Mulkey-Robertson to be "the shining light" of the athletic department, the Lady Bears went 26-9 last season and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. "When I first got here, the morale was really low," says athletic director Ian McCaw, who replaced Stanton a month after he resigned. "People felt betrayed. The success of Kim's program really helped the healing process."
One hesitates to use the term cult figure in Waco, but that is, in a sense, what Mulkey-Robertson has become. Her popularity--generated by her team's success, her honest, plainspoken style and a busy, far-flung speaking schedule--extends beyond the Baylor community and well into central Texas. "You hear things now like, 'I'm an Aggie, but I root for Kim,'" says former Baylor mathematics professor Pat Hickey, who has seen the ranks of the Tip-Off booster club she belongs to swell from about 200 five years ago to 460 this year. Even undergrads, who are typically a hard sell for women's basketball teams, have embraced the Lady Bears. Fourteen hundred students, many of them wearing gold got mulk? T-shirts, showed up for the Texas Tech game. As he picked his way through the icy, confetti-strewn mess on the floor afterward, Baylor sophomore Andrew McAdams tried to sum up Mulkey-Robertson's appeal. "Everybody loves Kim," he said. "She is a goddess. Yet she's so tough, she eats nails."
Even her players might argue that last point, but there's no question the coach and her Lady Bears are hungry. "There's so much to do here," says Scott. "Every time we accomplish something we set a record or we do it for the first time. That's fun. That's a feeling you want to keep experiencing. You want to shout to everyone, 'You like what we just did? Watch what we do next!'"
5 WOMEN ON THE VERGE
Here are five rising stars who could lead their surprise teams to the title
MATEE AJAVON, G, Rutgers
On a team that forces more than 20 turnovers a game, no one makes larceny as fun to watch as the blazingly fast 5'8" freshman, who averages 2.1 steals. Once she strips an opponent at midcourt, there is no catching her. She is also fearless on offense: She totaled 36 points in consecutive upsets of Tennessee and Texas.
JESSICA DAVENPORT, C, Ohio State
The lefthanded 6'5" sophomore has had seven double doubles in her last 10 games--including a 19-point, 13-rebound, 12-block effort in a Feb. 20 loss to Michigan State--and is a big reason why attendance at Buckeyes games has jumped a whopping 82% (from 3,900 to 7,300) this season.
KRISTIN HAYNIE, G, Michigan State
This homegrown 5'8" senior embodies what the Big Ten champion Spartans are all about: intensity and balance. With Radar O'Reilly--like anticipation, she leads the conference in steals (3.4 average) and assists (5.1) and is tops among the league's guards in rebounds (6.5).
IVORY LATTA, G, North Carolina
South Carolina's alltime high school scoring leader (4,619 career points) will captivate fans with her smile and energy and will burn opponents with her speed and perimeter shooting. In the last 10 games the 5'6" sophomore has averaged 3.0 threes. She's not bad from the stripe, either, leading the ACC at 88.3%.
KHARA SMITH, F, DePaul
The Blue Demons' high-octane offense (82.9 points per game, best in the nation) often starts with the 6'2" junior's signature move: a defensive rebound followed by what a teammate calls the "Brett Favre bomb." She leads the team with 18.4 points per game (on 61.9% shooting), 11.8 rebounds and 2.4 steals.