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Baylor title balm for troubled city

The Baylor Lady Bears, shown here watching the tournament selections, were an inspiration for Waco, Texas during their championship run last year.
The Baylor Lady Bears, shown here watching the tournament selections, were an inspiration for Waco, Texas during their championship run last year. (AP Photo)

Most of the associations that had piled up around Waco, Texas, were negative: the Branch Davidian standoff, the murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate..

But then came last spring's party that helped erase some of the negative images. Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson took her surprise Baylor women's basketball team all the way to the national title, installing positive lights in the troubled city. It was a bit of redemption for Mulkey-Robertson, who left Louisiana Tech feeling disrespected when the school refused to offer her more than a four-year deal, and a bit of redemption for the school and the city.

''I couldn't even describe it," said Mulkey-Robertson in a telephone interview. ''You would have had to have seen it. This school and this community took a beating from the nation. It could not have come at a more perfect time. The community, the state, the university, the appreciation, the thankfulness from people. The negative feelings that we helped erase at the university.

''I think [it] healed. Many were healed before we won the national championship. All that's in the past. It's history. We'll never forget, [but] it's something we don't want people to think we stand for and it's what we're about."

In three of her first four years in Waco, Mulkey-Robertson led the Lady Bears to the NCAA Tournament, nearly unimaginable for a program with zero women's basketball history. Then, in her fifth year, Mulkey-Robertson -- and forward Sophia Young -- brought the ultimate prize back to her adopted town.

The No. 10 Lady Bears (24-6) begin defense of their title as the No. 3 seed in the Albuquerque Regional, opening Saturday against Northern Arizona (21-10) in Tucson. Baylor relies on a number of freshmen, especially after the transfer of Emily Niemann and the loss to graduation of Steffanie Blackmon, which could hurt in the postseason. But nothing is ever certain in this tournament. And, as was evident last year, Mulkey-Robertson seems to be the type of coach that can make a difference.

''She was the individual I felt was absolutely the perfect fit for our university and what we were trying to accomplish," said former Baylor athletic director Tom Stanton, who hired Mulkey-Robertson but resigned in 2003 amid the Dennehy tragedy. ''I think you always feel lucky when [with] someone of that caliber and quality, you're able to close the door and establish a relationship for your university. There was a lot of hard work involved in our approach to Kim, her receptiveness, and her decision-making process.

''There's no question we were fortunate."

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