Nina, Niya another top duo for NCAA-bound Baylor women
Former All-America players Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims have been replaced by another top duo at Baylor.
With Big 12 player of the year Nina Davis and national assists leader Niya Johnson, the fifth-ranked Lady Bears will open the NCAA Tournament at home for the fourth time in five years. They have won every Big 12 regular-season and tournament title in that span.
''We've surprised a lot of people this season. I believe in my team and have confidence in us,'' said Davis, an undersized sophomore post player at 5-foot-11 who averages 21.1 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. ''If we come out every game focused and ready to play, we are a hard team to guard.''
Not even the preseason favorite in the Big 12 this season, Baylor (30-3) clinched the regular-season title with three games left before another tournament sweep.
''There is a star, you know. You maybe think there isn't with Brittney Griner gone or Odyssey Sims. But Nina Davis is a star, she's just a tough matchup,'' Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said. "What about Baylor is kind of a hidden mystery to some people, it's not a mystery to anybody who knows the game, it's how good Niya Johnson is. ... Baylor gets a good shot at the basket every time down and it's because of Niya Johnson.''
Johnson's 276 assists this season as a junior are a Big 12 record. She averages 8.63 assists per game, with an impressive 3.63 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Lady Bears are a No. 2 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional and play Northwestern State (19-14) on Friday, their first game in 11 days since the Big 12 tournament. They have a 19-game home winning streak, including first- and second-round NCAA games last March.
''We are familiar with Oklahoma City. It is an easy drive for Baylor fans. We have to get there. Let's focus on Northwestern State,'' coach Kim Mulkey said. ''It sure is a lot better to play someone on a neutral court than their home court if we get to the regional finals like we did last year.''
Being in the Oklahoma City Regional, with Notre Dame the No. 1 seed, provides the potential for Baylor to go on a redemptive run.
When the Lady Bears made it to a regional final as the No. 2 seed last season, with Sims a senior and Davis a freshman, they played top-seeded Notre Dame in South Bend.
''They definitely had an advantage. I think it was one of the craziest places I have played in thus far. I couldn't hear a single thing except Notre Dame chants.'' Davis said. ''As coach said, we aren't going to overlook the games we have to get there.''
If those same top two seeds advance to regional final rematch this year, they would play in Oklahoma City, the site of another NCAA heartbreaker for Baylor, two years ago in Griner's final game.
The top-ranked Lady Bears were upset by Louisville in the 2013 Sweet 16 at Oklahoma City, a year after their 40-0 championship season with Griner and Sims.
Mulkey missed last year's tournament opener while serving a one-game NCAA suspension for criticizing the officiating after the loss to Louisville in a very physical matchup.
''Coach Mulkey is very justified in her feeling toward (the game versus Louisville),'' said Sune Agbuke, Baylor's only senior. ''We got a lot of that out last year when we won the Big 12 tournament there. We don't really have those bad feelings. That game will always be hard for us to think about, but the place - it's fine. No big deal.''