Baylor WBB opens practice with full roster

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By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

With eight scholarship players last season, and sometimes even less, Baylor’s first-year head coach Nicki Collen couldn’t really turn to the bench when players got tired or made mistakes.
They say the bench is one of life’s greatest teachers, but Collen just didn’t have that option in a 28-7 season that included a Big 12 regular-season championship and a second-round loss to South Dakota in the Bears’ 19.e NCAA tournament appearance.
Entering his second season at Baylor, Collen has options after bringing in three freshmen, junior college signing Catherine Ferreira from Eastern Arizona and a quartet of Division I transfers – forwards Erika Porter (Illinios) and Dr. Una Edwards (Kentucky) and guards Jana Van Gytenbeek (Stanford) and Aijha Blackwell (Missouri).
“I think it makes accountability easier,” said Collen, who started official practices on Monday. “Sometimes it’s hard when you don’t even have enough body to really take someone out… Having more body gives you a lot of versatility, a lot of different options. I think we can go big “, we can go small. And I think we can be just as good. Just a little more in the bag to play with.”
Missing, of course, a pair of WNBA first-round picks in All-American NaLyssa Smith and Queen Ebowho was named to the Lisa Leslie Award Final Five in 2021 as one of the top centers in the country.
Collen calls 6-3 front/post freshman Kyla Abraham “Just the baby version of Queen right now.”
“She can run and bounce and is a bit lost,” Collen said of Abraham, who was ranked No. 10 at his position in the last recruiting class. “When she puts it all together, she’ll have the same kind of rim protection and athleticism (that Egbo does). She even has the crazy movement in the position that I was trying to get Queen not to, and I’m already trying to make sure Kyla doesn’t.”
The internal rotation also includes a fifth-year graduate student Caitlin Bickle and second Kendra Gillespie as a comeback, along with Porter and Edwards, who averaged 16.8 points and 8.4 rebounds last season for SEC Championship team Kentucky.
“I hope that’s a compliment, but (Edwards) is like the old man in the park who knows how to play,” Collen said. “She can be four or five inches oversized and only uses her legs to position herself and finish at the edge. She can pick and jump, she’s a really good setter. She’s like the guy you take to a room sport that can do it all, but maybe doesn’t look the most athletic or the tallest or anything.”
The Bears also have positional versatility, Collen said, with players like a 6-0 freshman Bella Fontleroy and Blackwell being able to swing between guard and forward points. Although she played guard at Missouri, Blackwell averaged 14.9 points and ranked second nationally with 13.1 rebounds per game.
“There are people who would come in and think they know so much,” said Fontleroy, the Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year. “There hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t learned something new, whether it’s terminology or even something as simple as when a teammate wants to pass on a certain screen. It’s definitely been a learning curve. So just getting acclimatized has been a big change, but I’m loving it so far.”
One of five returning players from last year’s squad, former transfer from UCLA Jaden Owens has the advantage of already going through this learning curve.
“I think it’s because Coach Nicki is very clear with what she wants,” said Owens, one of the team’s best ball defenders. “It’s never a mind game. She tells you what it is, and that’s it. She doesn’t beat around the bush. I have a very high comfort level with her, and I think that she’s comfortable with me, where she tells me what it’s like, I mean it’s easy for her to play, because she has no hidden agenda.
Even with all the changes – Bickle is the only player to be at Baylor for more than two seasons – the expectations are the same. Baylor has won 12 consecutive Big 12 regular season championships and hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 2003, the year before freshmen were even born.
“I don’t think you put on a Baylor uniform and didn’t feel pressured,” Collen said. “I know I didn’t take this job and I expect not to feel any pressure. No one wants to be on the team that breaks the conference championship streak. I think we’re carrying that. “And I think our players are feeling that pressure. But, would you rather play for a place without expectations? I think that’s why they came here, because they want to compete for championships.
Baylor will kick off with an exhibition game against Southwest Baptist on Nov. 3 before kicking off the regular season with the first of four straight home games, hosting Lamar on Nov. 7.
“I don’t think, I want to replicate what last year’s team did,” Owens said. “I think we are a new team this year. If we don’t have the same plays as last year, there is no reason to be the same. There will always be pressure. I think “still there’s a target on our backs with our name being Baylor. But I don’t feel any pressure. We just have to come and do our best as a team. That’s all that matters.”

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