THIRTY SECONDS. That's all it was: a simple timeout. Thirty seconds to save Baylor's national championship dreams. Thirty seconds to save a glorious season that had finally made the school and its city known for something positive.
Twelve years had passed since the catastrophic siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Almost two years had gone by since the murder of Baylor men's basketball player Patrick Dennehy and the scandal surrounding it. The Lady Bears had helped put those dark events in the past with their inspirational run to the Final Four, but here in the national semifinal against LSU, they were in trouble. They had 30 seconds to save face.
Tigers guard Scholonda Hoston had just drained a three-pointer, giving LSU a 24-9 lead with 7:40 left in the first half, and now Indianapolis's RCA Dome was rocking. "We're getting embarrassed on national television," coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson muttered to her staff, and ESPN commentators were indeed saying embarrassing things to the masses. (Ann Meyers: "It just seems like an avalanche." Mike Patrick: "And Baylor is being buried under its own mistakes!")
The coach could have told her players some ugly truths. That they were 3 for 17 from the field and had committed six turnovers. That they were up against the top-ranked team in the country. And, not least, that only once in the 24-year history of the women's Final Four had a team erased a deficit this large and won.
Instead Mulkey-Robertson said nothing at first, looking up from her clipboard and flashing a wry half-smile. It was the look of confidence, almost cockiness, that had defined her pigtailed-assassin days as a point guard at Louisiana Tech, where she won two national titles as a player and developed an instinct for the moment that can turn a game. "Coach always seems to know how to react in a timeout," says Lady Bears guard Jordan Davis. "We were getting ripped and chewed, but in that timeout she laid it on the table for us: Here's the hole that you've dug, and here's how to get out of it."
"As soon as we saw her face," says Baylor guard Chameka Scott, "we knew we'd be all right."
Mulkey-Robertson delivered three messages. One: Relax. "We were overwhelmed by the fact that we had made it to the Final Four," says star forward Sophia Young. "She helped us settle down and play."
Two: Remember the season opener. Baylor had fallen behind by 21 to the same LSU team, only to mount a furious comeback before losing 71-70. All season the Lady Bears had used that game as a touchstone, a spur to keep fighting.
And three: Go zone. For Mulkey-Robertson this was no small concession. "I'm a man-to-man coach," she says, "but I like to win, and you do whatever it takes to win." If one sign of a great leader is the ability to adjust in the face of adversity, then Mulkey-Robertson fits the description. "We couldn't guard them," she says of the Tigers. "They had the best player in the country [Seimone Augustus], the best freshman [Sylvia Fowles] and the best point guard [Temeka Johnson]."
Baylor's 3-2 zone would slow down Johnson, who had taken over the game with her unhindered penetration. What's more, it would sic multiple defenders on Augustus, the better to bump the national player of the year when she flashed to her favorite spot near the free throw line.
As she walked back on the court after the timeout, Young gave herself a pep talk: We're better than this. And then, as if on cue, the Lady Bears rediscovered their groove. A Steffanie Blackmon jumper. Three buckets by Young. A Scott three-pointer. LSU's attack was suddenly in shambles. By the time Chelsea Whitaker hit a fast-break layup in the dying seconds of the first half, Baylor had gone on a 19-4 run, tying the score at 28 heading into the break.
There would be plenty more work to do before the Lady Bears won their school's first national championship in a major sport--finishing off LSU 68-57 and blowing out Michigan State in the final 84-62--but in the months that followed they would view that simple 30-second timeout as the critical juncture: the moment when the team from Waco crawled out of the avalanche and staked its place among the sport's elite.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN
Mulkey-Robertson instilled courtside confidence in her players, then Davis (opposite, left) and Young celebrated victory.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN
¬†APRIL 3, 2005
[See caption above]