WACO — Brittney Griner and Baylor will begin the final leg of their run toward 40-0 in Ohio as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA women’s tournament.
The Big 12 champion Lady Bears (34-0), who could become the NCAA’s first 40-win team if they win their second national title, open against Big West Conference tournament champion UC-Santa Barbara (17-15). The first-round game is Sunday in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Baylor, the 2005 national champion, made it to the Final Four two years ago in Griner’s freshman season before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut. The Lady Bears made to a regional final last year before losing to Big 12 foe Texas A&M, which went on to win the national title after having lost three earlier games to Baylor.
Coach Kim Mulkey put together a challenging schedule this season to prepare them for where they are now. Her Lady Bears have responded so far by going undefeated and winning their games by an average margin of more than 27 points.
Griner, the 6-foot-8 junior phenom, leads the Lady Bears, averaging 23.3 points and 9.4 rebounds a game, along with 175 blocked shots. She has scored more than 40 points twice in her last four games.
Baylor is in its 11th NCAA tournament, all in Mulkey’s 12 seasons.
The 34-game winning streak is a Big 12 record. Connecticut and Tennessee are the only women’s teams to win 39 games in a season; the Huskies have done it three times.
Already this season, Baylor has defeated No. 3 Connecticut, No. 4 Notre Dame, No. 9 Tennessee and No. 14 St. John’s in a game at Madison Square Garden. UConn and Notre Dame are also No. 1 seeds in this year’s NCAA tournament and ninth-ranked Tennessee is the No. 2 seed in the same bracket as the Lady Bears.
After going 18-0 in the Big 12 conference during the regular season, the Lady Bears swept through the conference tournament with three more victories.
They capped the tournament with a 73-50 championship game victory over No. 22 Texas A&M, beating the Aggies for the third time in the same season again and matching their victory total from last season.
The only way Baylor and Texas A&M could play a fourth time this season, before the Aggies officially move to the SEC, would be if they both get to national championship game in Denver on April 3.
Sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims averages 14.6 points and has more assists (157) and steals (105) than turnovers (97) while averaging 32 minutes a game for Baylor. Junior post player Destiny Williams is averaging 9.9 points and 9.3 rebounds a game.
Santa Barbara last went to the NCAA tournament in 2009, when they lost 74-39 to Stanford. The Gauchos have never played Baylor.
Santa Barbara doesn’t have a double-figure scorer, and the tallest player on the roster is 6-foot-2.
In last year’s NCAA tournament, the Lady Bears played their first two games at home in the Ferrell Center before going only 100 miles from campus to Dallas. This time, they would go from Bowling Green to Des Moines, Iowa.
Baylor faces a potential second-round game against Ohio State in the state of Ohio. The other first-round game in Bowling Green has the Buckeyes playing Florida of the SEC.