Kristy Wallace: Taking the lead at Baylor

An Australian Under 19 representative both before and during her college career, Kristy Wallace has emerged as one of the leading Australians in NCAA women’s basketball during her two years with Baylor.

Although Baylor is one of the top women’s basketball schools in the US, and just two seasons removed from a national championship when Wallace joined, it wasn’t a simple decision for the Queenslander.

“I got to visit five schools," said Wallace. "I went to Baylor, SMU, Louisville, Purdue, and Washington. They’re kind of all over the shop, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I definitely think that five was a lot of colleges to visit, just because I wanted to suss it out.”

Five teams with excellent pedigree, in some very different parts of the country. But in the end, Baylor won out, courtesy of a couple of factors that resonated with the Gems representative.

“I knew I wanted to come to school in America," further explained Wallace. "I was super-excited that I was getting offers from other schools, so I was just fortunate enough to come and have a look at Baylor and see what they had to offer."

Kristy Wallace - Courtesy Baylor Athletics

Baylor beckoned

Part of what Baylor had to offer was a two-time national champion as head coach. Kim Mulkey is one of the most successful coaches in the history of women’s college basketball, and has led the Lady Bears to six straight Big 12 conference championships.

“I was really impressed with the Christian atmosphere and playing for Coach Mulkey is just an awesome opportunity,” Wallace outlined. “Just being part of such a successful program is something I wanted to be a part of. I’ve loved it so far.”

“I didn’t really know what to expect coming over here, I was just throwing myself in and seeing what would happen, but I’m definitely glad that I’ve done it. I’ve learnt so much about the game and so much about myself.”

“Just coming over here was a fantastic opportunity and I’m enthusiastic about it, and I think people should look into it.”

You can hear the enthusiasm in Wallace’s voice when she talks about the experience of playing in college, and it is with good reason. The opportunity to play at one of the top college teams in the nation isn’t something that comes along very often, and it has panned out spectacularly well for the Aussie.

“Playing in college is just such an experience," added Wallace. "The crowds are insane over here in America. I’ve played in front of 20,000 people which is just incredible. I would never have even thought about that back home.”

Certainly, playing in a power conference does bring with it games with great atmosphere, but the level of basketball is also outstanding.

“The girls are so athletic over here and there are so many teams with so many athletic people," said Wallace. "There’s just a lot of opportunities over here and it’s exciting.”

That statement is backed up by the number of WNBA draftees Wallace faced off against last season. Baylor came up against four first round players, as well as Canberra Capitals’ new signing Jazmon Gwathmey and Perth Lynx import Ruth Hamblin, during a season in which they reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

The college route will always have its doubters in Australia, but Wallace is hopeful that stories of experiences like her own will help to silence them. She is aiming to convince the skeptics that her decision to play in college is something that can only be made by each individual player depending on their needs.

“It’s definitely your opinion and your option to figure out what you want to do with basketball, and I think if you want to play professionally back home, that’s fantastic,” Wallace advises.

“But I’m definitely glad I came here to college, and just experiencing this. I get a free education with this experience as well, which is really neat. I mean, I’ve had such a positive experience, so I’m definitely all for college. But it’s definitely up to them and what they prefer.”

“Definitely do your research. Look into the coaches, the players, the school itself, the location. It’s important to do a lot of research and search for what you’re looking for in a school. If that’s not in America, or if that’s not in Australia, that’s something you’ve got to work out. So it’s a lot of thought process, and a lot of things go into it.” With so much to work out, it can be tough for a young player still completing high school, something Wallace is all too aware of. The former Gems representative valued the support of various people during her recruiting, and can only recommend that young players looking to make the move do the same.

“A lot of people helped me out in the process, because it’s just so overwhelming at times," Wallace explained.

My dad was very helpful. [Basketball QLD High Performance Director] Leonard King, he was a fantastic source I could go to, just to talk to, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I’m excited I came to college and I think it’s a great pathway for young players.”

Final Four focused

With two years under her belt and only good things to say about the experience so far, that due diligence which Wallace talks about has certainly served her well. As the junior guard enters her third season of college, she is looking to atone for last season’s Elite Eight loss to Oregon State and go at least one step further this year. Wallace openly admits that the loss still hurts, and that the team is determined to make the Final Four in 2017.

“I think we’ve got our goals set for this year; we’re aiming for that Final Four once again," expressed Wallace.

"Nothing’s changed, I think we’ve got a bit more fire in our eyes. If we get to that point, we’re just going to give it everything, guns blazing. It was definitely an unfortunate loss, but plenty of learning points came from it.”

The Final Four and college basketball in general, has been UConn’s domain for the past 4 seasons as the Huskies became the first team to win four straight national titles. The era of Geno Auriemma-led dominance however, appears to be tailing off slightly following the departures of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck to the WNBA. With that comes a slightly more open 2016/17 season. With Baylor playing the Huskies in the opening stages of their campaign, Wallace and her team-mates aren’t sleeping on the perennial contenders.

“We actually get to play UConn early in the season, so that will be interesting to see how we compare to them," Wallace further explained.

"I don’t know...there’s so many good teams, so many good players, so it’s all up in the air before the season starts. UConn lost a few good players, but they’ll always be good, and they have Geno. It’ll be interesting getting to play them this year.”

Whilst Wallace clearly knows and respects the other teams challenging for the title, there is an air of singular focus surrounding both herself and the team. That is to be the best team they can be, and make sure they are strong enough to take on all comers.

“There’s always your usual's; South Carolina, Tennessee, are always up there, Oregon State too," Wallace explained in outlining some of the teams challenging for a title.

“We’re just trying to focus on ourselves at the moment, we’re not too worried about that. It’ll come when it comes and we’re just working on improving ourselves.” After taking on UConn, Baylor also face UCLA just three days later. The Bruins toured Australia in August, and are primed for a title run of their own. But Wallace isn’t too concerned by the results of these early games, regardless of the opposition.

“Nothing will change," she outlined. "We’ve got our focus, we’ve got our goals, and we’re not going to be worried about losing or winning a game. Our focus is solid, we’ve got our goals, and we’re just going to rely on that. Rely on our team, and give it everything.”

Looking to lead

Whilst the team focus is certainly based around their own performance and not that of their rivals, Wallace is also focused on her own personal improvement, especially now that she is one of the more experienced players on the team.

“I’d definitely like to become more of a leader on the team," enthused Wallace.

"I think now that I’m a bit older, that I’m a junior now, that I’ll be able to take more of a leadership role. I’m very critical of myself so I think I need to work on everything - my handles, my shooting. But I’m looking forward to a new year, and I’m looking forward to the season.”

It may actually be the case that Wallace has little say in the matter with regards to what she focuses on. The team has lost Niya Johnson, one of the best point guards in the nation, to graduation. Yet top 10 recruit Natalie Chou has been added to the back court rotation. What that means for the Aussie isn’t yet set in stone, but Wallace has a fairly solid idea of how her role may change this season in what is a versatile Baylor back court.

“I think maybe that I might have to help out with the point guard a little bit," said Wallace. "Alexis Jones will be working on that, but I’ll definitely be transitioning from 1 and 2, I think.”

“Natalie’s a fantastic player. I’m excited. She’s a great talent, and we’ve got some good freshmen that came in, so it’s looking good. I think we’ve got a strong back court, and just being able to use such big girls.”

“I mean we’ve got some 6’4 girls on our team, so it’ll just be awesome having those girls. It’s just a matter of making it all gel, guards and bigs.”

Wallace and Baylor are certainly driving towards a national title that has eluded Baylor since 2012, but Wallace’s basketball career will continue long after her days in Waco. With that in mind, the junior has some lofty goals for her future.

“I’d love to make WNBA or go to Europe maybe if that option opens up," shared Wallace.

"The big goal is the Olympics. I’d love to be a part of that. But there’s a lot of work ahead of me before that happens.”

There may be a lot of work ahead for Wallace, but clearly Baylor is a great fit not only on a personal level, but also for achieving those professional goals. Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner and current WNBA players Niya Johnson and Odyssey Sims have all featured for Baylor in the last five seasons. When you add two potential 2017 first round draft picks in Alexis Jones and Nina Davis, Kim Mulkey has created an ever-growing pipeline to the WNBA.

It may take a few cards to fall the right way for Wallace, but if her final two college seasons go the right way, we may yet see her become Australia’s first WNBA draftee out of college since Alison Lacey went 10th to Seattle in 2010.

For now, Wallace is focused on taking the lead at the Lady Bears, and a chance for NCAA tournament success.