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Built From the Ground Up, It's Good News for the Bears

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page D01

INDIANAPOLIS -- A sign high up in the stands of the sold-out RCA Dome read, "It's Our Turn." But the women's NCAA Final Four was no punch bowl affair in which everyone was entitled to a turn out of politesse. Okay, so the Baylor head coach looked like she was going to a prom, and the rainbow colored streamers that shot from the ceiling evoked a dance more than a basketball game. Still, there was nothing girly-girl about the way the new national champion Baylor Lady Bears won their title.

Kim Mulkey-Robertson wore a suit of mouthwash-blue with silver-blue lame pumps, a strapless shell under her dainty jacket. But the Lady Bears outslugged, outworked and generally outclassed Michigan State, 84-62, the second-largest margin of defeat on the NCAA championship game books, to announce the presence of a great new program on the national scene. The Lady Bears are the real deal, and so is their coach. "This is one of many more to come," she promised.

For years other programs have suffered the overweening dominance of Connecticut and Tennessee: This was only the third championship game since 1995 that didn't involve one of them. The game has leaned heavily on those programs for excellence, attendance and for national interest. But when Baylor ran away from Michigan State before a crowd of 28,937, with a combination of polish and brute force, a point was proved: There are other teams now capable of rising to their level. "I just thought they were beautiful," said Michigan State Coach Joanne P. McCallie. "I caught myself just watching them."

Some coaches in the game have complained about Tennessee and Connecticut's grip on the trophies, but what they failed to remember is that both programs once had nothing and were built from the floor up by Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma. Finally, along came a younger coach who understood that. Baylor reached the Final Four for the first time in school history on the back of Mulkey-Robertson, a sparkling little pinwheel of a person, and a furious competitor who is someone to be permanently reckoned with.

"It drives us a lot because if it doesn't drive us, we'll be sitting next to her," said Baylor point guard Chelsea Whitaker. "She only accepts the best from us and if we're not putting our best out there I'm sure she will tell us, and she will tell y'all also by screaming at us."

With a combination of acumen and sheer forceful personality, Mulkey-Robertson has established her program despite all sorts of handicaps. Waco is hardly a recruiting mecca, and she has had to go up against the traditional state basketball powers Texas and Texas Tech. The big player "is not going to just walk in the door and say, 'I want to go to Baylor,' " MulkeyRobertson said. Baylor's delight in surpassing its more powerful Texas siblings was reflected by another sign in the bleachers, that read, "How's the Weather in Austin?"

"We just won a championship with not one kid on the roster that was recruited by the powers that be," she pointed out.

Mulkey-Robertson cobbled together this team out of overlooked second-tier recruits, transfers such as Whitaker -- the daughter of a Dallas firefighter who initially went to Virginia but who transferred after five nearly ruinous knee injuries -- and some fortunate finds. When Mulkey-Robertson took over, the team was just 7-20 and in last place in the Big 12. Recruiting was a wasteland. "They hadn't won any games and it didn't seem they were going to win any games," said Whitaker.

But Mulkey-Robertson beat the bushes for buried talent, or "sleepers," as she puts it, and she also had some good luck and good word of mouth. She found their marvelous all-American junior forward Sophia Young thanks to a tip. Young, a native of St. Vincent in the West Indies, has played organized basketball for only six years. She was a high school exchange student at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., when Baylor assistant coach Jennifer Roberts got a call from her father Bo Roberts, an amateur coach, who reported that he'd seen a raw but promising prospect. "You need to come see this kid, she's a diamond in the rough," he said.

Mulkey-Robertson and Roberts drove over to Shreveport to watch Young work out. After just five minutes MulkeyRobertson said, "Don't say anything to anybody. We need to sign her before anyone knows anything about her."

What they saw was a kid who didn't know the first thing about basketball, but who could "run the floor, block shots, and leap out of the gym," MulkeyRobertson said. Over the last three years, they've turned her into an all-courter who plainly has a chance to be the most dominant player in the game, a rangy post who can make clean moves, and face up and shoot. She led all scorers in the championship game with 26 points and 11 rebounds.

Young and another international find, Abiola Wabara of Parma, Italy, lent a hilarious element of cultural exchange to the Lady Bears. They puzzled over Texas slang. "What's this word, 'y'all?' " Young asked when she first arrived.

None of them could quite figure out how they came together in such a fortunate way. Throughout the Final Four they sent each other instant text messages, saying, "What are we doing here?"

What they were doing here was proving themselves. Just a year ago, Baylor suffered what was surely the most bitter defeat in the NCAA tournament when it lost a seven-point lead to Tennessee in the Sweet 16, and suffered a referee's controversial call with 0.2 of a second left on the clock that gave the Lady Vols a 71-69 victory. The loss might have broken their will. Instead the Lady Bears decided the loss proved they could play with anyone. "Finish the Job!" became MulkeyRobertson's battle cry, and all season the slogan appeared everywhere, on T-shirts and on hand-lettered signs in the stands.

But Tuesday night, as the final seconds ticked away on a dominant victory of their own, another sign appeared, raised high in the Baylor section of the stands:

"Job Done."

"We got a returning nucleus of players that aren't going away," MulkeyRobertson said, "and they sure did like the way it felt when that buzzer went off."

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