Chloe Jackson's one season at Baylor is everything she'd hoped for

Chloe Jackson transferred to Baylor in the offseason and is now the starting point guard for the No. 1-ranked Lady Bears. Baylor Athletics

WACO, Texas -- Chloe Jackson went home to Maryland last spring knowing she was at the final crossroads of her college basketball career. She could stay and finish at LSU. Or she could, as she put it, take a leap of faith.

Now she's the point guard for No. 1 Baylor, someone the Lady Bears have needed even more than they realized when she transferred in.

"I wanted a challenge, to compete on the biggest stage at an elite level, and to push myself," Jackson said. "And I also wanted to try playing the point-guard position. I thought it would help me become a better player. I just kind of trusted that this was going to be the right decision, and it was."

Baylor (18-1) hosts Texas Tech on Saturday and then travels to No. 12 Texas on Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). Notre Dame's Jan. 27 loss to North Carolina propelled Baylor to the top spot in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2013, when Brittney Griner was a senior and the Lady Bears were defending NCAA champions.

Despite continuing to dominate the Big 12 -- the Lady Bears are 8-0 and trying for their fourth perfect conference record in eight years -- Baylor hasn't returned to the Final Four since 2012. If that happens this year, it will be thanks in part to a player who took a while to find the right fit.

Jackson, from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, started her career at NC State but played just four games before an injury ended her season. She then opted to go to LSU and sit out a transfer season, even though that meant two consecutive years of not playing.

"But I watched and was able to pick up things and see how the game was played," Jackson said. "I knew I had those two years to get better, and then be ready to play when my time came."

In her first season in action for LSU, Jackson averaged 13.1 points and 5.1 rebounds. Then last season, she led LSU in scoring at 18.1 PPG, adding 4.7 RPG. In both years, LSU lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In last season's 78-69 NCAA loss to Central Michigan, Jackson played all 40 minutes and led LSU with 24 points. Afterward, Jackson felt incomplete. She then finished her degree, graduating in May 2018 and becoming eligible to go elsewhere and play in the 2018-19 season. She looked into Texas, Oregon and Louisville, but Baylor seemed the best fit.

The Lady Bears were returning sophomore point guard Alexis Morris, who had moved into the starting role late last season when senior Kristy Wallace was injured. Jackson assumed she would be in her regular role as a shooting guard while also helping out Morris at point.

But in September, Morris was dismissed from the team, and Jackson was suddenly projected as the starting point guard.

"I had played point guard at LSU at crunch time, like when we really needed to score and I'd be coming off a screen," Jackson said. "But it was never like this, where I was directing the team.

"It was tough at first. I went from having somebody show me and being able to learn from, to, 'I don't have much time; I've got to get it.' I had to hurry and understand this, and I had about a month to do it in."

She had to make a transition on defense, too, going from LSU's zone to Baylor's player-to-player. Jackson had played the back of the zone and become adept at picking off passes at LSU, but now she'd need to pressure the ball much more. Her plate had become very full very quickly.

Jackson smiled remembering the words of encouragement she received from her family: "They reminded me, 'Hey, this is what you wanted: a challenge. You've got to step up to the plate and make it happen.'"

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey told Jackson she didn't expect perfection, just that she keep on working at it.

"Coach Mulkey was a point guard in college, obviously, so I knew from the jump coming here she was going to push me to be a better player," Jackson said. "I was looking forward to that: her just staying on me every day in practice, making sure I was that vocal leader, knowing the plays.

"My teammates were supportive. They knew sometimes I was going to mess it up, but we were going to keep trying it. They stuck by me. It's also easy playing with two great post players."

That's 6-foot-7 senior Kalani Brown (15.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and 6-foot-4 junior Lauren Cox (12.2, 7.3), who lead Baylor in scoring and rebounding. Jackson's role isn't to score as much as she did at LSU -- she's now averaging 10.8 PPG -- but to be a scoring threat who is also the primary distributor. She has excelled, with 124 assists and 48 turnovers.

"She had to completely change her mindset, and she has done it extremely well," Mulkey said. "Her head was spinning early, but being an older player, she doesn't really get rattled.

"I can't say I'm pleasantly surprised, because I expected she'd succeed. What I didn't expect is how much I had to throw at her in a short period of time. We didn't see that coming."

In asking Jackson to run the team, Mulkey still doesn't want her to forget what she has always done well.

"I think she's one of the finest mid-range shooters in the country," Mulkey said.

And that's why, even when Jackson was struggling with her shot against then-No. 1 UConn on Jan. 3, Mulkey told her not to stop shooting. Although Jackson was 5 of 18 from the field, she made key shots in the fourth quarter, finishing with 11 points. She also had eight assists and no turnovers, the latter particularly important against the Huskies.

That 68-57 victory and the loud atmosphere at a packed Ferrell Center encapsulated everything Jackson was hoping for when she came to Baylor. And playing the point has made her more valuable as a potential WNBA draft pick. That said, she also has other things on her mind besides basketball; she sees law school and running her own business as future goals.

But this is exactly where she wants to be on court: playing for a team that has a chance to make an extended NCAA tournament run. For Jackson and for Baylor, her leap of faith was a fortuitous jump.

"I hope people see I'm a quick learner, I listen, and I'm coachable," she said. "It's helped me, being able to show everyone what I'm about and what I can do."