Lauren Cox, Baylor back for more after national championship

After what looked to be a scary injury in the NCAA title game, senior Lauren Cox is back and at full speed for defending national champion Baylor. Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire

FLOWER MOUND, Texas -- Lauren Cox drifted off to sleep, her thoughts a mixture of elation and worry.

Her Baylor women's basketball team had just won the national championship, and she had achieved a longtime goal. But Cox suffered what looked to be a severe knee injury with 1 minute, 22 seconds left in the third quarter, then watched anxiously as the Lady Bears survived a Notre Dame rally to win 82-81 last April in Tampa, Florida. Cox -- who had eight points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots before going out -- was on crutches and in tears afterward, sharing bittersweet hugs with teammates. She was thrilled to win, but uncertain about her future.

She prepared herself for disappointment and a knee injury that would sideline her for this coming season. After a pep rally back at Baylor the day after the NCAA title game, Cox underwent an MRI, and then steeled herself for the confirmation that she had a long road of rehabilitation ahead.

But then Baylor's trainer phoned with entirely different news: Cox had a sprained left medial collateral ligament and bone bruising. She'd need rest and some rehab to heal, but no surgery. Her senior season in 2019-20 was still a go.

"It was just a huge relief; I didn't even know what to say," Cox said. "I was super happy. A lot of prayers answered.

"I had thought the worst, because that's the pain I was in. That's how bad it felt. I just remember holding my knee on the court and saying, 'No, no. Why is this happening?' I'm getting a little emotional right now thinking of it."

Cox spoke as she was spending a few days at home in Flower Mound, a suburb of Dallas that's about an hour-and-45-minute drive to Baylor in Waco. Her biggest challenge now is getting back into basketball shape, but that's coming along. She has been full-go playing pickup with no knee brace for a few weeks.

"I'm doing everything, not restricted," Cox said. "Well, when they have us do single-leg jumps, I don't do that yet. But I'm playing, and running, and lifting weights, doing whatever we have to do."

For the spring and early summer, she was limited mostly to leg- and core-strengthening exercises, and wasn't allowed to jump or do much shooting.

"I'm actually not, like, a gym rat, but it was hard," Cox said. "I hate sitting out and not being able to play, and I definitely missed it."

She had other things to fill her time. Baylor visited the White House and went to the ESPY awards. Cox, who has Type 1 diabetes -- she was diagnosed at age 7 -- also visited Washington, D.C., for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Children's Congress. She was on a panel, which included other athletes, actors and dancers who serve as inspiration to children, sharing that diabetes doesn't stop them from achieving their dreams.

On Oct. 30, Cox will face off against one of her three sisters, Whitney, an incoming freshman for Lubbock Christian, in an exhibition game at Baylor that will raise awareness for diabetes. Both sisters are diabetic -- Whitney was diagnosed at age 17 -- and wear continuous glucose monitors and insulin pumps.

That game also will be a matchup of the defending Division I and Division II national champions. With center Kalani Brown and point guard Chloe Jackson now in the WNBA, Cox is the centerpiece player for Baylor, which went 37-1 in winning the program's third NCAA title.

The 6-foot-4 forward led the Big 12 and national champs in rebounding (8.3 per game) and blocked shots (97), while ranking second in scoring (13.0 PPG). Cox also had 142 assists to 56 turnovers, plus 32 steals. For the second year in a row, she was Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

"She could play every position," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "If I needed her to play point guard or the wing, she could. Lauren is just that talented and that competitive. With blocking shots, she does it so powerfully. That's effort and timing and knowledge."

Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu is the front-runner for national player of the year, but Cox also will be high on the list and is expected to be a WNBA draft lottery selection next April. But she won't have to do it all for Baylor.

The Lady Bears return 10 players from the title team. That includes two other starters -- guards DiDi Richards and Juicy Landrum -- and two forwards -- NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo -- who were important reserves as rookies last season. The Lady Bears add in one freshman, guard Jordyn Oliver, and two graduate transfers, guard Te'a Cooper and center Erin DeGrate.

Cooper, who began her career at Tennessee and then went to South Carolina, should be able to step into the point guard role that Jackson, also a grad transfer, filled so well last season. The 6-foot-6 DeGrate is from Waco, so this is a homecoming for her after starting her career at Louisville and then playing the past two seasons at Texas Tech.

"We're going to have a huge target on our back. I like having that, though; I think it goes with the competitiveness I have for the game." Baylor senior Lauren Cox

Cox's voice will be heard a lot on court and in huddles. Away from basketball, she is quieter and more reserved. But on the court, she's the kind of fiery competitor and dependable communicator that coaches love and often have trouble finding.

"Since my sophomore year, I've kind of been one of the leaders on the team," Cox said. "Definitely a vocal leader, and also trying to lead through my actions. I don't think this season will be too different in that aspect.

"We're going to have a huge target on our back. I like having that, though; I think it goes with the competitiveness I have for the game."

Mulkey, like everyone else, feared the worst after the NCAA final. She's very thankful to have Cox for this season.

"That kid hates to lose, and she's tough as nails," Mulkey said. "She doesn't mind getting on a teammate for the betterment of the team. Not to embarrass anybody or make them feel bad. But to say, 'I'm running this floor with you. I'm here to help.' She just has a presence about her, and does it in a way that her teammates respect her."