Baylor’s second-seeded women’s basketball team features a Wade Trophy finalist and first-team All-American (NaLyssa Smith), the 2020 National Defensive Player of the Year (DiDi Richards) and the Big 12 Newcomer and Sixth Person of the Year (DiJonai Carrington).
But, when coach Kim Mulkey tries to forecast her team’s prospects in the NCAA Tournament, she says, “We’re going to go as far as Queen (Egbo), honestly, takes us.”
For now, the 6-3 junior center has taken the Lady Bears (27-2) to a Sweet 16 matchup with sixth-seeded Michigan (16-5) at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
“It just adds another dimension to our team and makes it a lot easier when she’s defending like she is, getting offensive rebounds and putbacks,” Mulkey said. “She’s just very comfortable, she’s confident now. Success breeds success, and when you have some success, you want to keep doing it. I just think that she’s focused on basketball.”
Few players in the country have played better over the last 10 games than Egbo, who has averaged 13.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks while shooting 52.8 percent from the floor.
After blocking 14 shots in the three-game Big 12 Championship run, she swatted seven shots in the Lady Bears’ 90-48 rout of seventh-seeded Virginia Tech in Sunday’s second-round game.
“Queen Egbo was a beast out there today,” Mulkey said, “and she’s been doing that. It’s so good to see the progress that she’s made since she’s been at Baylor, because we’re a better basketball team when Queen Egbo plays like that.”
Ranked as the No. 7 player overall and No. 2 at her position, Egbo was actually the headliner in a “Fab Five” signing class in 2018 that included Smith and 6-0 junior forward Caitlin Bickle. A McDonald’s All-American at Fort Bend Travis High School, she averaged a double-double each of her last two seasons and blocked 5.0 shots per game as a senior.
With her pick of schools, Egbo chose Baylor partially because of its reputation for developing a long list of All-American post players like Danielle Crockrom, Sophia Young, Brittney Griner and Nina Davis.
“That’s definitely something I knew I wanted to be,” she said. “And I knew, in order to do that, I had to go to a program that was used to that, that it didn’t surprise them when they did have an All-American. I saw an opportunity to grow as a person and a player, as a student, and just be surrounded by people who want to see me get better every day.”
Which made it easier to wait her time behind All-Americans Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. As a freshman on Baylor’s 2019 national championship team, Egbo played just 10.1 minutes per game, averaged 5.4 points and 4.2 rebounds and didn’t play at all in either of the Final Four games.
“I knew opportunity was nothing but a name call away, and I would be in the game and eventually be in the starting lineup,” said Egbo, who averaged 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds last year as a sophomore, earning Big 12 Sixth Person of the Year honors.
“I just took things day by day. I didn’t try to be a different player, I just played my game. I appreciated our upperclassmen for showing me the roots and the ways of being a great post player. I feel like when you’re surrounded by great players and people, that you’re only forced to be great because at that point, if you’re not, what are you doing here? That was my whole purpose in coming here.”
Egbo also got a taste of that as part of the 2019 USA Basketball Women’s U19 National Team that won the gold medal at the World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand. Five players off that team were either first- or second-team AP All-Americans this season, including South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, Paige Bueckers of UConn and Michigan’s Naz Hillmon.
“It was challenging at times, but I felt like I needed that,” she said. “One of my goals, once my collegiate career is over, is to go play overseas. So, I got a taste of what overseas basketball is like, the structure and the discipline that comes with it. it was definitely an eye-opener. It helped me realize what I had to do or what it takes to be a great player.”
Tutored by Brown and Cox her first two years, Egbo became a starter this season and was no longer “living in somebody’s shadow,” Mulkey said.
“Queen Egbo now has her own identity,” Mulkey said. “She’s not trying to do what previous players have done. When you find your niche, then do it to the best of your abilities, and she really is. We knew it was in her. We just kept trying to get it out of her quicker than she could get it out. Now, she’s at a point where, when she doesn’t do those things, we’re frustrated at her, because now we expect it every game.”
Once a dream, now it’s a realistic goal for Egbo to play at the next level in the WNBA and overseas.
“I felt like I had a good shot of making it due to my athleticism and height and just the things I possessed at such a young age,” she said. “But, I also knew I had a lot to develop and a lot to learn. I would love to get an opportunity just to play with some of the greatest players in the world and be able to learn from them.”
One of the WNBA players she looks up to is Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks, a 6-2 forward who also hails from the Greater Houston area and is the daughter of Nigerian parents. Queen’s parents, Amaechi and Amazilo, were both born in Nigeria and came to the U.S. to “start a life here,” she said.
“My dad was actually in the (U.S.) Navy, so he moved here and brought my mom with him,” she said. “Their opportunities and them coming here have really helped my opportunities and given me a better life. Ultimately, that’s why they came to America, because they wanted an opportunity and they wanted a better life.”
Always “hard-nosed” about academics, Queen’s dad was skeptical about her daughter getting a chance to play basketball in college.
“I remember when I got my first offer, I told him, ‘Dad, I got a scholarship offer. I can play for a school for free,” Queen said. “He was like, ‘There’s no way, they won’t pay for everything.’ And I told him, ‘No, Dad, that’s how it works. It’s a full-ride scholarship.’ He didn’t really understand it until schools started calling me and coming to our home for house visits. It took my parents a little longer to understand everything, but now they’re fully on board.”
While her parents are not always able to come, Queen gets text reminders from her dad before every game: “Don’t foul. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” From mom, it’s more like, “Good game. You played great.”
When the Lady Bears play Michigan in Saturday’s Sweet 16 game at the Alamodome, Amaechi and Amazilo will be there in the stands watching their daughter.
“I owe so much to them,” Queen said. “I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
And Baylor can’t get to its fifth Final Four without Queen Egbo.
“It’s crazy that she’s not in the talk for defensive player of the year,” NaLyssa Smith said. “There are so many players that she has shut down this year, and I feel like she should be getting a lot more acknowledgement for that. But, the time is coming for that.”