Baylor coach Kim Mulkey's two children were on the ladder with her when she cut down the net after the Lady Bears won their first national championship in 2005.
Mulkey has already climbed two ladders this year, when Baylor clinched another Big 12 regular-season title and then after winning the conference tournament. She was joined both times by daughter Makenzie Fuller, now one of her former players and part of her staff, and held her five-month-old grandson.
"As Kramer says, I've been replaced," Mulkey said, referring to her son, a minor league infielder in the St. Louis Cardinals organization who was already at spring training. "I said, 'Well, if you were home, you'd be on that ladder with us.' We'd just get a bigger ladder."
While her children are now young adults and Mulkey is a grandmother, one thing hasn't changed. Baylor is still among the nation's best teams in Mulkey's 19th season as coach.
The Lady Bears (31-1) are the No. 1 overall seed and take a 23-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament. They open Saturday against Abilene Christian at home, where they have won 14 consecutive NCAA games.
In a 15-season stretch starting with that 2005 national title, they also had an undefeated 40-0 season in 2012 while winning 10 Big 12 regular-season championships and 10 conference tournaments . They have been to the Sweet 16 the past 10 seasons, and all 18 of the school's NCAA Tournament appearances have come under her watch.
Mulkey got a bit emotional after the Big 12 championship game when someone brought up the long-term success of the program, which was coming off a 20-loss season when she was hired in April 2000.
"I don't reflect on it myself and sometimes it's hard for me to comprehend just what has taken place here with the great players through the years and how difficult that it is to maintain," said Mulkey, the first person to win national championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
"I guess it was just in my mind and heart when the game was over that I needed to share with all of Baylor nation, and what was shared was me," she said. "It's mindboggling to sustain and maintain that as long as we have."
Mulkey described this as maybe her most enjoyable season of coaching, with a group of happy kids who play for each other. It follows one of the most difficult and emotional years in the coach's life. Only a week into the 2017-18 season, Fuller was about 18 weeks into her pregnancy with her first child, Mulkey's first grandchild, when the baby girl was stillborn.
About two months later, former player Chameka Scott died of colon cancer at age 33. Scott was one of Mulkey's first recruits at Baylor, and the coach called her "the heartbeat" of the 2005 championship team.
Baylor went into the postseason last year after point guard Kristy Wallace tore her ACL in her knee in the regular-season finale.
"You keep your faith, you surround yourself with people who make you keep the faith when you're at your lowest moment," Mulkey said. "And this year, to this point, has been probably one of the, if not the, most enjoyable year of my coaching career. Not because of the record, but because of those kids in that locker room."
The players are led by 6-foot-7 senior center Kalani Brown and fellow post Lauren Cox. Chloe Jackson made the unexpected adjustment to being the primary point guard after being the program's first graduate transfer, while Juicy Landrum has been a reliable shooter and Didi Richards a top defender. There is also a talented group of five true freshmen getting playing time.
"This is a special team, and it's just surreal," Jackson said. "This is what I came here for. ... I wouldn't want to do it with another group of girls."
Baylor swept through Big 12 play undefeated for the fourth time, and their league schedule started right after an 11-point home win over powerhouse UConn in January that snapped the Huskies' record 126-game winning streak in regular-season games. They were the unanimous No. 1 team in the final Top 25 poll that came out this week.
"They're just happy kids. They come to practice happy, and on their worst days, they work," Mulkey said. "They're just pulling for each other. ... They're just a joy to be around, they're a joy to coach. It makes it all worthwhile, it makes it fun to go to work every day."
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