WACO, Texas — The Western Kentucky women’s basketball team didn’t complete an upset for the ages Saturday.
But the 15th-seeded Lady Toppers’ first NCAA tournament game in six years wasn’t the blowout many expected, either.
WKU (24-9) went toe-to-toe with second-seeded host Baylor before falling 87-74 in the tournament’s first round at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.
“This is definitely a little emotional for us,” WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “My team, they put so much into this, and they’ve done a ton. For us to come in here and compete the way we just did and go to the last, I’d say three minutes, it says a ton about this team and how special they are.”
The Lady Tops seized the lead midway through the first half and trailed Baylor (30-4) by six at halftime.
It wasn’t until the final minutes that the Lady Bears – winners of two national championships, including in 2012 – began to pull away in front of 6,207 fans on their home court.
A year after Baylor fell as a No. 1 seed to fifth-seeded Louisville in the Sweet 16, it’ll advance to play No. 7 seed California on Monday in Waco.
“I want to commend Western Kentucky on a great performance,” said Baylor associate head coach Bill Brock, who led the team Saturday in place of suspended coach Kim Mulkey.
“They had a great year. They had won 10 in a row coming in here. I thought they played outstanding tonight. I thought that was one of the better shooting performances someone has come in here as an opponent and done on our home floor. They never did quit.”
WKU answered run after run by the Lady Bears on Saturday, staying within striking distance despite the inspired play of Baylor senior star guard Odyssey Sims and a freshman star in the making, forward Nina Davis.
Davis finished with a career-high 32 points and 10 rebounds, while Sims added 31 points. No other Lady Bear had more than six points.
But even still, Baylor’s lead never grew past 13. Most pregame betting lines tabbed the elite women’s program as a favorite of 30-plus points.
“We weren’t intimidated by them,” WKU redshirt freshman guard Kendall Noble said. “We knew we could play. We knew they were a good team, but we were prepared for everything they threw at us. We just fell a little short.”
Baylor quickly built a lead by establishing its presence inside. The Lady Bears outrebounded WKU 43-24 with 15 offensive rebounds, and forced Lady Topper posts Chastity Gooch, Jalynn McClain and Bria Gaines into foul trouble.
But that wasn’t enough to bury WKU, which cut its deficit to 25-23 with 9:12 left on a 3-pointer by junior forward Gooch.
Senior guard Bianca McGee’s 3 at the 6:41 mark gave the Lady Tops their only lead at 28-27. That lead lasted 15 seconds.
Baylor responded with a 14-4 burst to pull in front by nine, and Gooch’s bucket with five seconds left made it 47-41 at halftime.
“We always know that a team’s going to make a good run,” McGee said. “Of course Baylor was going to make a run on us, but we wanted to remain calm no matter what.”
The Lady Tops kept their cool with Gooch and Noble leading the charge.
Gooch had a team-high 23 points and nine rebounds, and Noble again filled up the stat sheet with 21 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals. McGee made four 3-pointers and scored 18 points.
WKU pulled within four to start the second half and trimmed its deficit to 70-65 with 6:30 left on a 3 by sophomore guard Micah Jones, but Baylor started to shut the door for good with a raucous crowd behind it.
The Lady Bears scored eight of the next nine points, and sophomore guard Niya Johnson’s 3 as the shot clock expired with 1:27 left sealed the win.
Baylor improved to 12-1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament and 6-1 at home in tourney play.
“Western Kentucky made several runs at us,” Brock said. “Sort of like the saying, you bend, you bend but you don’t ever break. We bent a little tonight. They would keep coming at us, pushing us, attacking us, but we never did break, and we always had an answer.”
Jones added five points and six assists for WKU, which shot 47.5 percent for the game, including 56.5 percent in the second half.
Baylor shot 50 percent from the floor and recorded 24 assists on 30 baskets.
The loss snapped WKU’s 10-game winning streak, which included a run through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and a dramatic win over Arkansas State in the title game.
The Lady Tops returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008 in Heard’s second season, on the two-year anniversary of her hire. They graduate two seniors in McGee and guard Chaney Means but will return the rest of the team, along with a healthy Alexis Govan and four signees.
“I know the young ladies sitting in that locker room, they’re going to be burning up inside for a while, and this is going to give us an opportunity to continue to keep growing,” Heard said.