WACO, Texas — Baylor is a No. 1 seed for the first time and playing at home to start this year's NCAA women's tournament.
The Big 12 champion Lady Bears (31-2) open this year's tournament Sunday against SWAC champion Prairie View (21-11). If they want to make it to the Final Four for the second year in a row, there is the real possibility that they will have to beat Big 12 runner-up Texas A&M for the fourth time this season to get there.
"We've got to get to Dallas first," coach Kim Mulkey emphasized.
Really, though, that shouldn't be a problem for Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the Dallas Regional and hosting the first two rounds. The Lady Bears are 19-0 at home this season, and are 13-0 all-time against Prairie View — winning those games by an average margin of 47 points.
In the other first-round game Sunday in Waco, Houston (26-5) from Conference USA plays West Virginia (23-9), the No. 9 seed from the Big East that started the season by winning its first 16 games.
The most exciting news Mulkey got Monday wasn't about the NCAA tournament. It came in a text message received at 5:15 a.m. from Melissa Jones, the senior guard who said she was starting to get some vision back in her right eye.
Jones missed only one game and played the entire Big 12 tournament after hitting her head on the floor going for a loose ball against Oklahoma two weeks ago. She wasn't initially unable to see out of her right eye because of swelling in an optic nerve, though doctors have said she will eventually get her full vision back.
"I'm waiting for that one text that 'I can see clearly now'," teammate Brittney Griner said, the 6-foot-8 sophomore standout excitedly singing the last part of that.
While still far from normal, Jones said it was progress when she woke up in the middle of the night, opened her eyes and realized she could see something.
"I was like wait a minute, this is different. I hopped up out of bed and ran into my bathroom and turned the lights on. I can kind of see. I can see a little bit," she said. "When they blur peoples' faces on the news when they don't want somebody to see them, that's kind of what everything looks like to me."
Jones, a starter, is the only Baylor senior who plays significant minutes.
Texas A&M (27-5) is the No. 2 seed in the Dallas Regional and plays its opening game against McNeese State (26-6) on Sunday in Shreveport, La.
Baylor is 3-0 this season against the Aggies, but had to overcome a 12-0 deficit in the Big 12 tournament championship game Saturday. The Lady Bears also won the Big 12 regular season title ahead of Texas A&M.
"I can't ever use the word shocked with the NCAA anymore," Mulkey said. "You want to see new teams. I don't think anybody wants to see the same teams that you see from your conference. ... I have no idea. I quit a long time ago thinking geography, thinking saving money."
Baylor, in its 10th NCAA tournament in Mulkey's 11 seasons, was a Final Four team last season when the 6-foot-8 Griner was a freshman and lost to Connecticut in a national semifinal game.
"Every year, it has been a different experience. This year is different just because of the expectations," Jones said. "Our primary focus is to just take one game at a time. You can't overlook anyone because there are upsets left and right."
The Lady Bears, who have made it to at least the NCAA round of 16 five times, won their only national championship six years ago in Indianapolis. That's where this season's Final Four will be played.
If Baylor gets the chance to end this season against Connecticut, that would mean both of them made it to the NCAA national championship game. They played in mid-November, when the Lady Bears lost 65-64 on the road against the two-time defending national champs.
This time, Mulkey doesn't believe everybody else in the NCAA tournament is automatically playing for second place behind the Huskies.
"I think after Stanford having beaten Connecticut and us losing to them by a point, we all have hope now," Mulkey said. "And I really think more so than ever, it is an open tournament that anybody can win it."
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