WACO, Texas (AP) — While top-ranked Baylor is hosting opening-round games in the women’s NCAA Tournament for the seventh year in a row, Waco also has become a familiar postseason spot for the California Golden Bears.
The Pac-12 Bears (19-12) are playing NCAA games at Baylor for the third time in six years, though they avoided having to open against the home team each time — they play North Carolina (18-14) on Saturday. California won first-round games here in 2014 and 2017 before losing to Baylor.
“X’s and O’s and strategy, that stuff matters. Then there is, I think, the emotional component, and that’s a combination of excitement, maturity, leadership. I do think we’re at the high end of that this year,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I have a group of seniors that have been here — literally here — but also kind of on this stage, and I hope that works to our favor.”
Perennial Big 12 champion Baylor (31-1), the No. 1 overall seed in the 64-team field, opens against NCAA first-timer Abilene Christian (23-9), the Southland Conference tournament champion whose Texas campus is about a three-hour drive from Waco.
The Lady Bears have won a nation’s-best 23 games in a row and have a 37-game home winning streak. They have won their last 14 NCAA Tournament games in the Ferrell Center and are an overwhelming favorite against a team in only its second year of Division I eligibility.
“This is the last part of our season, and I asked (the players) how many games do you have to win to win a national championship. How many do you have to win to get to a Final Four,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “None of that matters if you don’t win the next one. ... We don’t miss a scouting report. We spend the same amount of time in the film room.”
Some things to know about the first-round games at Waco:
Kristine Anigwe, Cal’s All-Pac 12 senior center, averages 22.9 points and 16.3 rebounds per game. She is the only Division I player, male or female, with double-doubles in every game this season. The last player to finish a season averaging 22 points and 16 rebounds was Patricia Hoskins at Mississippi Valley State in 1988-89.
“I think this year kind of showed me that it’s like bigger than me,” the 6-foot-4 Anigwe said. “I wanted to stay in the present, take in every game, every second, playing with the Cal jersey.”
North Carolina sophomore center Janelle Bailey, also 6-4, knows she is in for quite a challenge against Anigwe.
“She’s relentless on both ends. ... She has a continuous motor,” Bailey said. “It’s not about stopping her, it’s about containing her, making it difficult for her to score the ball and get rebounds.”
None of North Carolina’s players has ever played in an NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels and 33rd-season coach Sylvia Hatchell are back for the first time since 2015.
But they feel tournament-ready after going through the ACC, and with wins over then-No. 1 Notre Dame and North Carolina State.
Hatchell told her team that the “competition in the NCAA will be like it was in the conference.”
California senior guard Asha Thomas grew up cheering for North Carolina, where brother Quentin was part of Roy Williams’ first recruiting class and played all 37 games as a freshman when the Tar Heels won the 2005 national championship.
“I think this is probably one of the best days I’ll have just because just our families are connecting, the programs’ families are connecting,” Asha Thomas said about facing North Carolina. “It’s fun for me. ... I know my brother, he’s going to cheer for us for sure.”
Quentin Thomas, now a rapper whose artist name is GQ, splits his time when not touring between Chapel Hill and his family’s home state of California. Asha Thomas spent some summers in North Carolina and worked out at Tar Heel facilities.
This will not be Baylor graduate transfer Chloe Jackson’s first NCAA Tournament game in Waco. She was still with LSU when the Tigers lost a first-round game to California two years ago.
California grad transfer Recee Caldwell also has played at Baylor, when in the Big 12 Conference as a guard for Texas Tech. Caldwell is from San Antonio and expects more than 30 family members and friends to make the three-hour trip to see her first NCAA Tournament game.