Posted: Wednesday April 6, 2005 2:40AM; Updated: Wednesday April 6, 2005 9:32PM
Emily Niemann finished with 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting and was 5-for-8 from 3-point range.
Tuesday night, the Baylor Lady Bears beat Michigan State the same way they've beaten teams in 32 other games this year -- with solid production in the post and a big night from a mystery guest on the perimeter. Senior Steffanie Blackmon (22 points, 7 rebounds) and junior Sophia Young (26 points, 9 rebounds) had their typical stellar games, but the player who crushed the Spartans was 6-foot-1 sophomore Emily Niemann, who came off the bench to deliver long-range missiles that made hash of Michigan State's matchup zone. In the first half, she scored the Lady Bears first six points with two threes; her FIFTH three of the half was delivered from NBA range and killed a Spartan rally right before the half ended.
"Emily is our zone-breaker," said teammate Jordan Davis. "She was absolutely amazing tonight."
Three of the hallmarks of this Baylor team have been unselfishness -- how many other teams thank their band and cheerleaders after every game? -- flexibility and confidence.
Perhaps no Lady Bear embodies those three concepts as perfectly as Niemann.
Recruited as a forward out of Westbury Christian School in Houston, she changed her game to perimeter shooting when she joined a team that already featured two All-America candidates in the post. Shooting wasn't exactly a new skill -- she says she has spent two hours a day shooting since she was in fourth grade -- but delivering in a national championship game is considerably different than knocking down shots in a game of around-the-world.
"I've always taken a lot of pride in being a basketball player as opposed to a three or a four or a five," says Niemann, who scored a total of 19 points against Michigan State, one off her season high.
"I just try to be flexible and try to do whatever I need to do to help my team win. That's the ultimate goal. It's not about me being good or looking good, or being an All-America, it's about helping us win. If that means me doing something a little bit different, than I'm used to it and that's fine."
Niemann has had other big games this year. But she has also had games in which she hasn't scored at all. She is just one of the Lady Bears' half dozen possible X-factors. Opposing coaches have driven themselves crazy trying to find a pattern in Baylor's box scores. Before scoring 14 against LSU on Sunday, Niemann had connected on just six of 26 shots from beyond the arc in the tournament's first four games.
After recording 12 points and five rebounds and delivering endless harassment to LSU's Wade Trophy winner Seimone Augustus on Sunday night, Abiola Wabara played for just ten minutes and contributed two rebounds, two steals and an assist. Point guard Chelsea Whitaker, who had seven points against LSU scored zero against Michigan State but had six assists. Blackmon, who averaged 15.2 points and 7.9 rebounds, had just seven points and one rebound against LSU, but she roared back to finish her career with 22 points and 7 rebounds against MSU. That was one spike the Spartan staff had anticipated.
"When you've got a player who had a bad game, you know they are going to want to come back and have a good game," said Michigan State assistant Al Brown after the game. "We talked about it. We had to be alert to that. We knew she wanted to have a good game and she did."
But were they prepared for Niemann? Or for sophomore guard Latoya Wyatt, who averages less than four points a game, but had eight points and six rebounds on Tuesday? Or for freshman Angela Tisdale, who added defensive pressure and two points in eight minutes?
"I think we're the ultimate team," says Baylor assistant Bill Brock. "We really don't care who scores, who gets credit. Kim (Mulkey-Robertson) preaches that. It's not about one player, it's about the team. You see three players come off the bench tonight and contribute. Those kids have to understand that from game to game you're not going to get significant minutes sometimes, but you just have to keep yourself ready on the sidelines."
Although Whitaker cracked on Monday that the Lady Bears are driven by Mulkey-Robertson's notorious intensity "because if it doesn't drive us we'll be sitting next to her," the bench is not some dark purgatory for the Lady Bears. As Niemann showed tonight, it can be the source of heroics. Indeed, Baylor's bench was Tuesday's high scorer; it had 29 points compared to Michigan State's three.
"We have so much confidence in each other, you could have a bad night and that's fine," says junior guard Chameka Scott. "Because we have other people who can step up. You can sit the bench knowing you're not hurting the team in any way by not showing up one night. You can come to terms with the fact that you're not having a good night because someone else will. That type of confidence is what got us here."
With a game plan like that, every night ends up being a good night for the team.