Big 12 champion Lady Bears set to defend national title in San Antonio
When the buzzer sounded in the Lady Bears’ last appearance in the NCAA tournament, they celebrated.
A dramatic win over Notre Dame in Tampa in 2019 clinched the program’s third national championship under head coach Kim Mulkey. And while COVID-19 has led to plenty of changes since then (including the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tournament), a lot has remained familiar.
In the two years since that national title, the Lady Bears have claimed two more Big 12 regular season titles (their 10th and 11th straight, the nation’s longest active streak) and won the 2021 Big 12 tournament (their 11th conference tourney title).
Now, they’ll defend that national title just down I-35 from Waco, with the entire NCAA women’s basketball tournament taking place in the San Antonio-Austin-San Marcos area in a bubble environment designed to protect teams amidst COVID-19. The Lady Bears were selected as the No. 2 seed in the tournament’s River Walk Region. They’ll take on 15th-seeded Jackson State (Sunday, 3 p.m., ABC) in the Alamodome and, with a win, would face the winner of 7th-seeded Virginia Tech and 10th-seeded Marquette. The top seed in the region is long-time rival (and currently No. 1-ranked) UConn.
After winning both Big 12 titles again this year, the Lady Bears were well-represented in the conference’s end-of-season awards: junior NaLyssa Smith was named Big 12 Player of the Year, while senior DiJonnai Carrington earned Newcomer of the Year and Sixth Player of the Year awards, and seniors DiDi Richards and Moon Ursin earned All-Big 12 honors.
Many consider this year’s tournament to be wide open for a number of teams to make a run — including Mulkey. “I just don’t see a dominant team,” says the Lady Bears’ head coach. “I see outstanding teams, but it’s going to be who stays the healthiest… and gets on a roll here these last two or three weeks.”
To that end, the 25-2 Lady Bears have plenty going in their favor. Their tenacious defense has held opposing teams to the lowest field goal percentage in the nation (.322), making every night an off night for opponents. And there’s the experience factor, as well; all five starters were a part of the 2019 championship team, and graduate transfer DiJonai Carrington comes from Stanford, a regular in the tournament.
“We just keep getting better,” Ursin says. “That’s the scary part for teams that are going to be playing us. We just continue to click, and we continue to find each other’s strengths. When we’re all flowing like that and we’re staying consistent, we’re a hard team to beat.”
Sic ’em, Lady Bears!