Talented sophomore duo thriving in expanded roles for No. 2 Baylor

NaLyssa Smith has stepped up into a starting role for Baylor this year. David Butler II photo.
NaLyssa Smith has stepped up into a starting role for Baylor this year. David Butler II photo.

NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo couldn’t have asked for a better training ground for the future than the one they found in last spring’s NCAA Tournament.

Smith, a forward and Egbo, a center, had played behind star posts Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox all season long as freshmen, soaking in knowledge.

Smith was pressed into action during a crucial stretch of the National Championship game after Cox – the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year – went down with a knee injury late in the third quarter. Smith responded with eight points, four rebounds and a block over the next 11 minutes to help propel her team to an 82-81 win over defending champs Notre Dame.

Egbo had shown her fire earlier in the Lady Bears’ run to their third title, as the team rampaged through the field and weren’t challenged until they reached the Final Four.

Brown was drafted into the WNBA with the seventh pick one week later, and Cox missed the first eight games of this, her senior season, recovering from her injury. But Smith and Egbo had no problem making the transition to the starting lineup.

Smith is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game and 7.8 rebounds – second only to Cox. Egbo is right behind them with 7.5 rebounds per outing, to go along with a 12.1 points average. As rookies, Smith averaged 8.4 points and Egbo, 5.4.

“Our post players will always have to produce at a high level for us if they are going to stay on the floor and allow us to be successful,” associate head coach Bill Brock said. “Both NaLyssa and Queen obviously learned good practice habits from Kalani and Lauren last year and have been pretty consistent on the court this season.”

That reliability has kept now-No. 2 Baylor ranked in the top five all year, including some time at the top spot. The Lady Bears took down then-No. 1 UConn earlier this month, which snapped the Huskies’ 98-home game winning streak and knocked them out of first place. Baylor has won 48 straight Big 12 Conference games.

Brock and head coach Kim Mulkey knew that the team’s fate in the early stages of the season, with a brutal non-conference schedule, stood on the shoulders of Smith and Egbo. Each worked hard over the summer to improve, but also had to master being on the floor for longer stretches of time.

“The chemistry of last year’s team was very strong and it was a real blessing to win it all,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t have the same team back this year, so everybody had to work harder and accept more responsibility. I didn’t look at it as pressure at all.”

As she did in the Championship match up, Smith came up big against UConn with 20 points and 12 rebounds to help seal the upset.

“My role was a lot smaller last year, so I had lot to prove and I wanted to make a difference,” Smith said. “I worked on the little things during the offseason like conditioning, weights and posting up. My primary focus on the floor has been working harder on rebounding, and thinking the game more.”

Queen Egbo defends the basket. David Butler II photo.
Queen Egbo defends the basket against UConn earlier this month. David Butler II photo.

While Smith may be the most polished scorer of the two, Egbo is a premium athlete who is learning all the idiosyncrasies of the game during her ascension. This week she was tabbed on the NCSA website as one of the best players at her position in Division I.

“Queen has been more consistent with her shots around the rim this season,” Brock said. “She has improved so much in her knowledge of the game.”

The¬†blueprint is apparent if the Lady Bears any hopes of repeating in April. It mirrors last year’s formula, with stifling man-to-man defense and a strong inside presence on offense.

Although both Smith and Egbo have had their share of highlight moments – proving their relationship and on-court cohesion is soaring – each believes that having a larger part in their team’s success is the key focus.

“I was more of a role player last year that came in to provide a spark,” Egbo said. “I worked on being consistent with my rebounding to earn my spot in the rotation.”

The two said they fully realize how important each is and how important they are collectively to Baylor’s success. Now, it may be time for the pair to be recognized more prominently on the national level.

“It’s a team game, so I just want to keep working hard and help put our team in position to win,” Egbo said. “Coach Mulkey always preaches team basketball, so that’s our mentality every game.”

Smith, who should be in the conversation for First Team All-Big 12 at season’s end, is also determined to keep the Lady Bears’ momentum going.

“Winning the championship last year was surreal,” she said. “We know it will take a lot of hard work to get back to the Final Four.”

Baylor takes on Texas in Austin tomorrow.

Sue Favor contributed to this report