Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey said she started noticing signs of Bell’s palsy when her mouth felt weird when she ate and her eye was drooping.
WACO, Texas — Kim Mulkey’s voice echoed loudly from the court as the fiery Baylor coach shouted instructions and encouragement to her players during their final on-campus practice before leaving for the NCAA Final Four.
Mulkey had promised to make no changes in how she will coach the undefeated Lady Bears this week, even after learning that she has Bell’s palsy, a form of facial paralysis. And she showed it on Thursday, with her voice clearly audible from practice nearby as the team prepares for Sunday night’s semifinal showdown with Stanford.
“When I smile it’s crooked and when I talk, and talk loud, the hollowness in my hearing is weird,” Mulkey said. “But it’s not going to keep me from hollering.”
WHO/WHEN: Sunday — Notre Dame (34-3) vs. UConn (33-4), 5:30 p.m. and Baylor (38-0) vs. Stanford (35-1), 9 p.m.
WHAT: Women’s NCAA Tournament, Final Four
AT STAKE: Winners will play for national title Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.
Mulkey disclosed the diagnosis before practice, unveiling and then discussing a potential distraction for the team. She said she first noticed a strange feeling in her tongue while in Des Moines for the NCAA regional last weekend. Things got worse Wednesday when the coach had what she described as a weird feeling in her mouth while eating, then saw in a mirror on her way to practice that her left eye was drooping and her smile was crooked.
Concerned that the symptoms could be the onset of a stroke, Mulkey checked with team trainer Alex Olson, and he advised her to get immediate attention. The diagnosis of Bell’s palsy came after she saw two doctors and had an MRI that ruled out a tumor or a stroke.
“I know that I will recover,” Mulkey said. “It will take some time to recover and it may get worse before it gets better.”
Olson said Mulkey is being treated with anti-viral medication and oral steroids to reduce the inflammation of the facial nerve that causes the problem. It can take weeks or months for symptoms to subside.
The Lady Bears are two wins away from their second national championship under Mulkey and the NCAA’s first 40-win season. In the other semifinal Sunday, also featuring No. 1 seeds, Connecticut plays Notre Dame. The Lady Bears left for Denver after practice Thursday.
Baylor advanced to the Final Four, its second in three years, with a 77-58 win over Tennessee and coach Pat Summitt on Monday night. Summitt announced in August she had early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. It is unclear if the 59-year-old Summitt, whose 1,098 career victories are the most by any coach in NCAA basketball history, will return for a 39th season.
Baylor officials said Bell’s palsy is caused by a dysfunction of the facial nerve that results in the inability to control facial muscles on the affected side. It usually has a rapid onset of partial or complete paralysis that often occurs overnight. Many doctors believe the inflammatory condition is caused by a virus.
“I don’t obviously have a severe case of it,” the 49-year-old Mulkey said. “Because I’ve seen the worst. I’ve seen people who have it where their face is totally drooping.”
Mulkey said don’t think she’s not happy because she’s not smiling.
“I’m not smiling because I don’t want people to see my crooked smile,” she said.
Olson said most people taking steroid medication like Mulkey will begin to see improvement within about 10 days. He said the coach will be monitored to make sure there aren’t any adverse effects from the medicine, which he doesn’t expect.
“You sure?” Mulkey yelled while turning toward him, inducing some humor into the explanation. “And y’all (reporters) need to look out because they tell me these steroids make me irritable.”
Mulkey said she is concerned about possible inner ear problems because of the mile-high elevation in Denver, and that doctors will have medicine for her if that becomes an issue.
Mulkey publicly disclosed the ailment after players Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and Destiny Williams — with Mulkey sitting at the podium with them — talked about the Final Four, then left the room to get ready for practice. Later, Mulkey could be heard loud and clear in a nearby work room as she communicated with her players on the court; they had already been told about her ailment.
Mulkey missed Baylor’s NCAA tournament opener in 2009 after surgery to remove a kidney stone, though she returned to the court two days later.
“I learned then your health keeps you in the game or it doesn’t, and we have really no control over health issues a lot of times,” she said. “I learned then this game can be taken away from you in a heartbeat. I’m pretty tough and I can hang through a lot of things, but I know when something’s not right. I knew the kidney stone wasn’t right, I knew this wasn’t right.”
Still, Mulkey isn’t going to let the latest ailment take away from the Final Four experience and the pursuit of another championship. She said she can’t get enough tickets for all her family coming to the game from Louisiana.
“It’s intense, it’s pressure-backed, but it’s fun,” she said. “We’re going to enjoy the scene at the Final Four and we’re going to do things because the older I get the more I realize you may never get back to another one. Go enjoy your family and go do some fun things with your family. We can focus at the right time.”
NORTH CAROLINA TRIO OF STARS LEAVING FOR NBA:
Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall have decided now is the time for the NBA.
North Carolina said Thursday the three stars will enter the draft, ending a two-year run in which the Tar Heels made deep NCAA tournament runs only to fall a game short of the Final Four each time.
The school didn’t state whether all three planned to hire an agent in its release announcing the departures, though it appears they’re in the draft to stay.
“It’s a great day for three youngsters who are taking another step toward their ultimate goal of playing professional basketball,” coach Roy Williams said in a statement. “On a very small stage, it’s a sad day for me because I won’t get to coach them again. All Tar Heel fans will miss them greatly, as well.”
Henson was a freshman during Williams’ worst season as a head coach in 2010. Barnes arrived a year later as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, though it wasn’t until Marshall took over at point guard midway through that season that the Tar Heels took off.
UNC lost to Kentucky in a regional final that year, but Barnes, Henson and rising senior Tyler Zeller put off entering the draft for another shot at a championship despite being likely first-round picks.
The Tar Heels (32-6) were the preseason No. 1 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship for a second straight year, but they fell in the NCAA regional final again amid a dizzying run of injuries — including wrist injuries to both Henson and Marshall.
“I wish we’d have been able to bring our fans a national championship, but it wasn’t meant to be,” Henson said in a statement. “I am proud of what we accomplished, especially the last two years.”
Both Barnes and Henson said in their statements they planned to continue working to complete their undergraduate degrees.
Barnes, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, averaged about 17 points to lead the team. Henson, a 6-11 junior, averaged about 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, and was a two-time ACC defensive player of the year. Both were all-ACC first-team picks.
Marshall, a 6-4 sophomore, won the Cousy Award presented to the nation’s top college point guard earlier Thursday and set the ACC’s single-season assists record. Throw in the graduating Zeller, a 7-footer who was ACC player of the year, and those four starters accounted for 66 percent of the team’s scoring and 59 percent of its rebounding.
While Barnes and Henson have been considered bigger NBA prospects, Marshall’s departure could be the biggest loss considering how he flawlessly ran Williams’ fast-paced offense. The pass-first point guard also upped his scoring late in the year and reached double-figures in his last six games to improve his draft prospects.
“It’s been the greatest two years of my life,” Marshall said in a statement. “I have always put the team before myself and I am extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished. My lifelong dream has been to play basketball at the highest level possible and I feel now is my greatest opportunity to fulfill this goal.”
Marshall’s father, Dennis, said Thursday night the family planned to start looking for an agent in the next two weeks and Williams had told Marshall he should be “a solid first-round pick.”
“I know it’s been a lifelong dream of his to play in the NBA,” Dennis Marshall said. “I think both of us were kind of shocked it happened this soon because coming into college, I always thought he’d be a four-year guard and he thought he’d be a four-year guard. His game evolved and he was able to do the things that people have been telling me all my life he’d be able to do at that point, so it just kind of happened that way.”
Kendall Marshall’s value was never more apparent than when he missed the Tar Heels’ last two games after breaking his right wrist.
The Tar Heels barely beat 13th-seeded Ohio in overtime despite a season-high 24 turnovers — the program’s most in an NCAA game in 24 years — in the round of 16. They didn’t manage a field goal in the last 5½ minutes and were outscored 12-0 to close the 80-67 loss to Kansas in Sunday’s regional final.
As for Barnes, he entered each year as a preseason all-American, but for the most part, he never quite lived up to the lofty expectations.
Armed with a polished all-around game but no clear go-to move, he overcame a slow start to his freshman year with some clutch late-game shooting and a 40-point showing against Clemson in the ACC tournament. He seemed more prepared to handle the expectations as a sophomore, but was dominant only in stretches and faded badly late in the year.
Barnes averaged 14 points on 36 percent shooting in the last 10 games. He shot a combined 8-for-30 overall and 2 for 14 from 3-point range in his final two games without Marshall.
The departures mean Reggie Bullock will be the leading returning scorer at about nine points per game for what likely will be a guard-heavy lineup. Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald are both expected back from knee injuries along with P.J. Hairston, who struggled with his outside shot through his freshman year.
Ronnie McAdoo, the father of freshman forward James Michael McAdoo, said his son plans to return to school but will review his NBA options with the family this weekend.
North Carolina also has a recruiting class that includes likely Marshall successor Marcus Paige, a McDonald’s All-American from Marion, Iowa.