With the win, the Bears quieted some doubters, who said that Cal did not belong in the Tournament.
"Maybe two months ago, we don't win that game," said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. "We've been in a lot of different situations.This team has shown a lot of resilience."
"We've had a lot of people tell us some things that kind of hurt us a little bit in the past couple of weeks, that kind of took us back," said freshman CJ West. "And we're just ready to show them that we can make a dent in this, just do whatever we can. No game against us is easy, so that's what we want to prove. I think we are ready to accept the challenge."
Baylor presents a formidable challenge of an elite team playing perhaps their best ball of the year. The Lady Bears beat Texas Southern 119-30 in the first round, notching the third highest score in NCAA Tournament history (most in regulation). In the process, they set some NCAA Tournament records: the largest margin of victory, and holding TSU to 13.8% shooting.
Head Coach Kim Mulkey attributes Baylor's late-season loss to West Virginia for the Lady Bears' record-breaking performance.
"Hopefully the loss to West Virginia in some ways made us refocus," said Mulkey. "It didn't matter who we played. That team last night was as focused and as ready as they have been at any point this year. It started in practice. You can say well maybe the loss made them. Maybe. Whatever it was, I know that four seniors in that locker room realized this is their last time to play on this floor. They realize this is their last chance to get to a Final Four."
"I didn't need to watch that game to know that they're really good," said Gottlieb. "They're really good. I'm sitting up here looking at Odyssey and Griner [on the walls], and when I was an assistant at Cal we played Baylor with Sophia Young, who was one of their first great All-Americans on the National Championship team. And this year's team in a lot of ways might be the most complete. They're huge, and they've got really good guard play to go with the size."
Baylor showed a complete team effort against TSU, but was led by their centers, 6'7 Kalani Brown (21 points on 9 of 10 shooting) and 6'4 Beatrice Mompremier (22 points on 10 of 14 attempts).
"I think Kalani -- well, I don' think, I know--Kalani is in great shape," said Mulkey. "She can play for longer periods. She is moving. She took charge. She is running the floor. Who does that at 6'7? Beatrice is a rebounding machine. Beatrice can get to offensive rebounds as good as any kid I've coached. Beatrice has a knack for being around the ball."
Both are only sophomores.
"Last year, they both came in as freshmen and played immediately," said Mulkey. "There is no substitute for experience. There is just no substitute for it. After that first year they realized, I did a lot of good things, but I've got a long ways to go and it doesn't start when we start practice in October. It starts in the summer when they're here for summer school and working with strength and conditioning coach."
Mompremier had 11 rebounds, while Brown grabbed eight as Baylor beat TSU on the glass 60-19 (the margin is another NCAA Tournament record). Cal, not known as a good rebounding team, will have a tough time matching up.
"They're plus 20 on the boards," said Gottlieb. "They just devastate people, because of the size and the aggressiveness. It's pretty simple; we have to box out and limit them to one shot attempt. Are you going to do two hours of rebounding drills today? No. But at this time of the year, you hope the players can understand from film and can get it done."
"Boxing out is a huge emphasis in the game," said Mikayla Cowling. "It's a must, almost. We have to find a body. No one can stand around watching the ball go up." Â Â
Baylor can also bring off the bench freshman Lauren Cox, a 6'4 forward who was ranked as the top player coming out of high school. So the Lady Bears should have plenty of depth to help match up with Cal's main weapon, Kristine Anigwe.
"[Anigwe has] tremendous athleticism, leaps out of the gym, has great range, runs the floor well," said Mulkey. "She's just an athlete. She didn't score a lot last night, but we know that we've got to defend her. She gets to the foul line more than anybody on their team, leading scorer."
But Mulkey does not sound worried about Anigwe, or about Cal, for that matter.
"We have the size to match-up with her," said Mulkey. "I think playing Cal versus LSU, it's a little bit more traditional for us because of their size. If we had played LSU it would have been difficult, because they bring their bigs outside the paint."
If Baylor is able to neutralize Anigwe and the Golden Bears in the paint, Cal will need to hit from outside. Specifically, it would help if Asha Thomas could continue her hot shooting. The sophomore point guard knocked down a career-high six three-pointers in the win over LSU.
"I don't want to stop," said Thomas. "If they limit my shooting, then I will need to do other things: get into the paint, rebounding, do other things for my team."
"She's just the GOAT," said freshman Mi'Cole Cayton of Thomas. "It was good to know that if I ball fake and pass the ball to her, she's going to knock it down. It was a lift off of not just mine but the other teammates' and the coaches' shoulders, just to know that we have someone we can rely on." Â Â
The Bears admitted to jitters before the LSP game and anticipate the same against Baylor.
"I'll be more nervous--bigger game," said Anigwe. "It's my first time in the second round. It's their house, their home court. But Pac-12 did a good job preparing me: Oregon State has really good post players, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington. I'm prepared. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain, against the number one seed."
Cowling had 12 turnovers against LSU and knows that the Bears will need to be better against Baylor. "It was just a big game, getting the nerves out. I need to be more in control, not rush things. Just maintain my poise."
"We just need to be sharper," said Asha Thomas. "We had a lot of turnovers. Baylor is a great team, so the pressure will be even more, and they'll attack even more. They'll try to limit our strengths, so we will definitely need to be sharper on our different options."
Gottlieb understands that Baylor will be a challenge, but she believes her team will be ready.
"They're like a WNBA team. They don't have real weaknesses, and they're inside game is unreal. They're a No. 1 seed for a reason. They're a National Championship contender for a reason, but there will not be a team more excited to play on Monday night than us. I've said it the whole time, you can be excited to be here and still have a focus and try and want to win the game. The coaches, we'll get the players locked in, and we see it as a great opportunity, but they're a heck of a team. They have 31 wins now, I think, which is no fluke. They play an incredibly tough schedule, and we'll have to give it our best shot on Monday night, but I don't doubt the women in our locker room love a challenge, and that's what it's going to be. Because why not? Why not take a shot at the number one seed."
"We had a great film session today, and we feel prepared," said Courtney Range. "Right now, I believe this team can do a lot of things. When we stay composed and relaxed and not worry about what's next and what's next and just taking care of each possession, we will go far. If we do that, we're a team to beat."
Tip off is at 8pm CT.