WACO, Texas (AP) — Another green-and-gold confetti celebration for NaLyssa Smith and fifth-ranked Baylor, and another Big 12 title that the Bears don’t have to share.
Smith had a career-high 35 points with 12 rebounds in her senior day game as the Bears clinched the outright Big 12 women’s title with an 82-57 win over Texas Tech in the regular-season finale Sunday.
“It’s always exciting winning. That’s my favorite feeling ever,” Smith said. “The more I win, the more excited I am.”
The Bears (25-5, 15-3 Big 12) were guaranteed at least a share of their 12th consecutive Big 12 title and 13th overall after an 87-62 win at ninth-ranked Iowa State last Monday. Baylor, which has won 15 of 16 games since losing their first two conference games for new coach Nicki Collen, had to beat Texas Tech for the outright title after the Cyclones ended their regular season Saturday night with a win.
“It sounds silly to say we went from the outhouse to the penthouse, but we did in two months,” said Collen, the former WNBA coach who replaced Kim Mulkey. “But we were resilient. I’ll never forget being in that locker room at (Oklahoma) at 0-2 and looking every kid in the eye and asking them individually, are you going to quit? ... Do you still believe? And every one of them said yes. And from then on, we’ve just chipped away at it.”
Bryn Gerlich had 12 points and Taylah Thomas 11 for Texas Tech (11-18, 4-14), which as a team wasn’t able to outscore Smith by herself until the second half. Smith had 22 points at halftime, when Baylor had a 45-22 lead. Vivian Gray finished with 10 points, held to half of her season average.
After Smith’s two free throws in the opening minute, Tech tied the game at 2-2 before Smith and Gray traded jumpers for a 4-4 tie. The Bears then built a four-point lead before Smith’s fastbreak layup that began her stretch of 12 consecutive points over a four-minute span.
“Obviously Baylor’s a really good basketball team. And we were pretty mismatched with NaLyssa, of course,” Lady Raiders coach Krista Gerlich said. “She’s got some really good pieces around her, so it’s hard to try to double her in some spots. ... She’s just a dynamic player that that can score in a variety of ways.”
Smith, who could be the No. 1 overall pick in the next WNBA draft, finished with her 21st double-double this season and 49th in her 127 career games. Her previous career high for points was 33 eight days earlier against Kansas, and she had followed that with a career-best 20 rebounds in the win over Iowa State last Monday.
Jaden Owens added 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting, including three 3-pointers, for Baylor.
Gray’s free throw with 8:07 left in the third quarter was Tech’s 23rd point, one more than Smith at the time. Smith immediately followed with a layup for her 24th point before the Red Raiders had consecutive field goals for the first time in the game though that 22-point deficit was the closest they would be the rest of the game.
A day after the reigning national champion Baylor men celebrated a share of their second consecutive Big 12 title with a win at home over Iowa State, there was another postgame championship celebration at the Ferrell Center. The women were presented their latest trophy on a stage with a long table in front of that with the 12 previous conference trophies on display.
Smith was the last of the nine Bears players — they have only eight scholarship players and a walk-on added at the start of the season — to cut off a piece of the net. Collen finished it off and then thrust the last piece of net up in the air.
“This is an incredibly special group. You know, I know it’s coachspeak to say we’ll be better in March, but the reality is this is when you want to be playing your best basketball,” Collen said, then thanking the crowd for their support.
“Thank you for believing that what we had was enough, because what we have is enough,” she said. “I’ll take this group anywhere, on the road or otherwise, and compete for any other championship that’s out there.”
Texas Tech: The Lady Raiders were coming off an 83-79 win over TCU in their home finale, after losing 10 of their previous 11 games.
Baylor: After winning the last 11 Big 12 titles and three national titles for Mulkey, Baylor lost their first two conference games under Collen. But the only loss since was when Oklahoma hit a buzzer-beating shot. The Bears have a 10-game winning streak.
Baylor could move into the top four for the first time this season. Fourth-ranked Louisville is coming off a stunning loss to Miami in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
The Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. Texas Tech, the No. 8 seed, plays Oklahoma State on Thursday night. That winner of that first-round game faces Baylor in a quarterfinal game Friday.