KANSAS CITY — Sharing a stage with a pair of the sport’s heavyweights, Kristy Curry didn’t shy away from the spotlight.
“I feel like we can compete for a Big 12 title,” the Texas Tech women’s basketball coach said during Big 12 Conference Media Day on Wednesday at the Sprint Center. “We feel we’re, obviously, in that underdog role, (but) we feel we can take the next steps forward and compete for the Final Four.”
Clearly, the goals are ambitious given what lies ahead. Claiming the conference crown will require unseating the juggernauts at the top of the league’s pecking order: Baylor and defending national champion Texas A&M.
But while that sort of roadblock may have seemed like too tall a task in recent years, the Lady Raiders believe their experience warrants high aspirations. The battle-hardened group includes a pair of senior forwards in Kierra Mallard and Jordan Barncastle, as well as one of the league’s most complete guard groups in juniors Casey Morris, Christine Hyde, Monique Smalls, Chynna Brown and Mary Bokenkamp.
“We have the ability to win the Big 12 tournament,” Morris said. “We’re just as good if not better than a lot of teams in that tournament, so I’m really excited, and I think everyone else is.”
At times last year, the Lady Raiders looked poised to take the next step required to join the conference’s elite. A 56-45 victory over then-No. 1 Baylor in February in front of more than 10,000 fans at United Spirit Arena was one of the program’s biggest wins under Curry, who is in her sixth season at Tech.
But it might have been some of the lower moments from last season that Tech learned from the most.
After running out to a 16-1 start, including wins in their first three Big 12 contests, the Lady Raiders dropped six straight games, putting their postseason hopes in jeopardy. Tech responded by winning six of its last eight conference games — including the win over Baylor and victory over Oklahoma — on the way to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005.
“I think our kids showed a lot of character down the stretch after that,” Curry said of the six-game skid. “And, obviously, you don’t make excuses, but we had a couple of personal tragedies that a couple of our kids went through at that time and had to leave our program for a couple of days and come back and forth.
“And it was tough. But again there are no excuses, and our kids really responded down the stretch when we needed to the most.”
Morris said the midseason stumble and ensuing recovery is just another bullet point of experience on the team’s resume.
“We’ve grown,” she said. “We’ve been playing together for a long time, so we have the chemistry to get through obstacles like that.”
Leading the charge is Mallard, who is the team’s top returning scorer (12 points per game) and rebounder (7.2). Her experience and versatility in the post is vital in a conference that features some of the country’s best post players: Baylor’s Brittney Griner and Kansas’ Carolyn Davis.
Curry said Wednesday she was miffed at the fact that Mallard wasn’t included as at least an honorable mention on the preseason All-Big 12 team.
“It’s absolutely a joke,” Curry said. “And I think she’s going to prove a point this year with that.”
For her part, Mallard isn’t focused on any preseason lists.
“I don’t pay attention to none of that stuff,” she said. “I just put my head down and keep moving.”
Keeping her head down and moving has enabled Mallard to make great strides since her freshman season at Tech, as much in areas of mental maturity and leadership as any other facet of the game.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever coached a player that I’ve been more proud to see their growth — on the floor, in the classroom and community — than Kierra,” Curry said. “There’s not anybody that’s working harder at Texas Tech than Kierra right now.”
Curry and her staff hope those strides made by the senior can further complement the team’s strong guard class. Tech’s coach said she thinks Hyde could be one of the league’s most improved players.
Mallard, meanwhile, said the improvement she has seen from sophomore forwards Kelsi Baker and Shauntal Nobles leads her to believe the team will be deeper and more dangerous in the post.
Will all those ingredients be enough for Tech to ascend to the throne of the toughest conference in women’s college basketball?
“We’re excited in taking the next steps,” Curry said. “We feel we can be that one team that surprises a lot of folks this year.”