If the Baylor women thought they’d been tested in their first top-25 game against Maryland — and they were — wait until they get a lot of what’s in store for them in Florida.
This is not a pleasure cruise. And yet the bears want nothing more than to bring home a few duty-free wins from the beach. (Three of them, to be precise.)
The No. 21 Bears (3-1) will play three games in three days at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Fla. beginning at 10 a.m. Central Friday against Saint Louis (1-5). After that game, they face either No. 23 Villanova or Belmont on Saturday before taking on a team from the other side of the table on Sunday, either No. 22 Michigan, Air Force, USF or Georgia Tech.
Such events pose not only a physical challenge, but also a scouting problem. To a certain extent, Baylor coaches have to do their homework on all eight teams in the tournament because you never know who you might be up against next.
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“In a tournament, you can prepare for a game and guess afterwards,” said Baylor coach Nicki Collen. “It’s not like if we beat Saint Louis I have no idea who we’re going to play against because Belmont and Villanova are both really, really good. Belmont brought Louisville to the wire and had won the game. So you can’t just guess.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Okay, this week we’re not just going to work on Saint Louis.’ “We will work on who we think our next opponent will be. So we have to turn around quickly and keep it simple.”
A simple task that would improve Baylor’s chances: take shots. The Bears struggled with their shooting for the second straight game in Sunday’s 83-78 loss to Maryland, which rose to No. 14 in the AP poll after beating the Bears. Baylor managed to get over its sluggish start with a second-half surge to make a game out of it, but ultimately the hole it dug into proved too steep.
The Bears are still figuring out who they are after Aijha Blackwell apparently suffered a knee injury. They started three guards – Jaden Owens, Sarah Andrews and Ja’Mee Asberry – against Maryland and managed to edit the offense to generate a lot of open looks. But they struggled to put them down, especially early in the game. Asberry, in particular, was on a sustained slump in shooting, hitting just 19% of her 3-point attempts after hitting more than 36% last season. She was 0-for-6 from the deep against Maryland.
“I thought we got a lot of good shots,” Collen said. “Maryland was doing step-back 3s behind screens, and we couldn’t do unprotected 3s from kids who were 40 percent shooters in their careers. I’m sure people are asking, ‘Why are they shooting?’ If you don’t know why Ja’Mee, who was shooting 40 percent a year ago, or Sarah, who was shooting 40 percent a year ago, is shooting open 3s, then you can’t win basketball games.”
While most of the injury news has been bad for Baylor this season, the Bears benefited from the return of Caitlin Bickle in the Maryland game. Baylor beat the Terrapins by 14 points when the older forward was down as she brought a calming influence and the ability to put down a 15-foot shot from the high post. The problem against Maryland is that Bickle was hit by some early fouls that hurt her game time, and after 20 minutes of stop-and-start action, fouled just under three minutes from play.
“Honestly, I think if we bring Cait in a game or two games back, she’ll get her rhythm back,” Andrews said after the loss in Maryland. “Honestly, I think that was it. She was out of rhythm. I think if you give us a game or two back to Cait before then, we’re a completely different team.”
No one in the basketball coaching offices at the Ferrell Center is panicking at this point. The Bears lost a game to a strong ranked opponent and should be a formidable test of their own for their Gulf Coast opponents. Andrews caught fire against Maryland with 21 points in the second half, and the Bears continue to receive solid contributions from rising newcomers Darianna Littlepage-Buggs and Bella Fontleroy. Buggs had the best game of her young career with 16 points and 14 rebounds against the Terps.
Friday’s opponent the Billikens have a hot scorer in 5-11 senior guard Kyla McMakin who has shots totaling 21.2 points. Saint Louis can also make life difficult for teams of color thanks to the presence of 6-5 center Brooke Flowers, a hometown St. Louis product who recently set the school record for blocks in a game of nine.
It doesn’t get any easier as the weekend progresses, with the likes of Villanova, Michigan and Belmont in the field among others.
But it’s also an important step in that process, Collen said. Before the game against Maryland, she gathered the team to remember the fun challenge that comes with facing a ranked opponent.
“I asked them in circles, that’s bombed. That’s a bomb,” Collen said, giggling. “It was a good idea, but it didn’t work. The first thing I asked her today was, ‘Buggs, why did you come here?’ And it was so cute. She said, ‘Because of the people.’ And then it was like, ‘Hey Cait, why did you come here?’ ‘Win’ OK, great. One of the reasons you come to Baylor is to play on stages like this and you have this opportunity.”
All of the tournament’s games will be streamed on FloHoops, a subscription service that costs $29.99 per month.