Lady Bears host powerhouse UConn in showdown

Lady Bears guard Chloe Jackson (24) said playing games like Thursday's UConn matchup are a big part of the reason she transferred to Baylor.Lauryn Amy photo

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said her team is fired up to play, but downplayed the importance of the nonconference game.

WACO, Texas -- Baylor’s big matchup of the nonconference schedule is finally here as the top-ranked Connecticut Huskies come to town for an 8 p.m. tipoff on Thursday night at the Ferrell Center.

Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey made clear on Wednesday that, while this is a showcase game for women’s college basketball, it won’t define Baylor for the rest of this season. She was quick to point out that her team has the Big 12 opener on Sunday at Texas Tech.

Point taken.

But it’s also probably the most anticipated contest Baylor will play on its home court in this campaign. No. 8 Baylor (11-1) hasn’t beaten UConn (11-0) since 2013 when the Lady Bears claimed a 76-70 victory in Hartford, Connecticut. The Huskies lead the series, 4-2, and have a 2-game winning streak against Baylor.

Although the Lady Bears’ loss at Stanford in mid-December knocked the Lady Bears back in the rankings from third to eighth, it’s still a premiere nonconference game for UConn.

“It’s probably a unique challenge for anybody in the country when you think about the size that (Baylor has) and the combination of the size and the quickness in their guards,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s a tough test, real tough test for us.”

Auriemma didn’t get to be the leader of the most dominant program in the country by being overconfident.

But it seems like the Lady Bears face the bigger challenge.

UConn guard Katie Lou Samuelson might be the best player in the country as she averages 20.1 points, shoots better than 40 percent from 3-point range and is grabbing 7.8 rebounds per game. However, Samuelson has to share the spotlight with teammate Napheesa Collier, who is averaging a double-double with 18.6 points and 10.5 rebounds.

The 6-foot-3 Samuelson and 6-2 Collier will have to grapple with Baylor’s interior combo of 6-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Lauren Cox.

It will present an interesting contrast of styles, guided by Mulkey and Auriemma.

“We’re going to play and make them have to guard us and they’re going to play and make us have to guard them,” Mulkey said. “I think you’ll see two different styles based on the personnel. We’re going to do what we do, they’re going to do what they do and whoever hits the most shots wins.”

Auriemma, of course, made it sound like the key factors are stacked against his team.

“Unfortunately, then, it becomes you have to make a bunch of shots,” he said. “Because the shots they’re getting are 2 feet from the basket, the shots that we’re getting are 20 feet from the basket.”

Mulkey made light of the speculation that Thursday’s result will impact seeding in March. However, it could give insight into each team’s chances to claim the national championship.

“If they blow us out, I’m going to say, ‘Oh keep me the hell away from ‘em,’” Mulkey said. “If we’re close, I’m going to say ‘Gah, I wish I had one more shot at ‘em.’ That’s what competitors do. But I can tell you we’re going to be fired up to play.”

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