WOMEN’S FINAL FOUR : SEMIFINALS & FINALS
By Leo Haggerty
BAYLOR 72 OREGON 67
It was just too much Baylor size for Oregon to handle as the Bears pulled away at the end to beat the Ducks 72-67. The outcome, though, was in doubt until the last minute of play.
Both teams had to deal with some interesting strategy right out of the gate by the opposing coaching staff. The Baylor game plan was to hound incessantly the Ducks best player, G Sabrina Ionescu, almost exclusively by G DiDi Richards and it paid dividends for the Bears. #20 put up a goose egg in the first 10 minutes of play.
The Oregon plan of attack was to not allow Baylor’s twin towers, 6’7” C Kalani Brown and 6’4” F Lauren Cox, to beat Ducks in the paint. Coach Kelly Graves had directed his post players to be extremely physical inside and have the perimeter player closest to either of those two Bears players collapse down in front. That also worked for the first quarter as #21 had five points and #15 scored six points respectively. The first 10 minutes with Baylor holding a 19-15 advantage.
The price of poker changed quickly in the second quarter. Baylor’s size started to take its toll on the Ducks as Brown and Cox combined for eight points in the quarter and Richards chipped in with six from the perimeter. On the other side of the coin, Oregon’s Ionescu finally made her first basket at the 8:35 mark and followed that up with another six points. The junior from Walnut Creek, CA then hit a four-point play with seven ticks left in the first half to give the Ducks a 34-33 halftime lead.
Both teams continued to play hard in the third quarter but the main statistic was three-point shooting as the contest materialized into a contrast of styles. Oregon was 10-24 behind arc and Baylor was 0-3 as both teams had their best offensive quarters of the tilt with the Bears outscoring the Ducks 23-21 to take a precarious 56-55 advantage after 30 minutes of play.
The fourth quarter is just what you would expect a Final Four contest to be. Big baskets, big stops, clutch shooting and great defensive plays highlighted the final 10 minutes. Baylor came away with five critical defensive stop at the end of the game and converted just enough offensive possession to secure the victory.
The final stats really emphasized the differences in offensive philosophy. Oregon outscore Baylor 36 to 0 from behind the arc. In stark contrast, the Bears dominated the scoring in the paint 48 to 20.
Baylor now awaits the winner of the nightcap between Connecticut and Notre Dame. When I asked Coach Kim Mulkey if it mattered who showed up in the colored jersey Sunday night she responded, “Not really but I’ll bet you it’ll be somebody that has blue in their uniform.”
Who said Coach Kim doesn’t have a sense of humor. It surely isn’t me.
NOTRE DAME 81 CONNECTICUT 76
In the nightcap, defending champion Notre Dame overcame a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat Connecticut 81-76. That puts the Irish in the Sunday finals against top-seeded Baylor.
UConn came out to the gate quickly and moved to a 14-3 lead at the 3:18 mark of the opening quarter on the heels of an 11-0 run. Notre Dame was able to whittle down that margin and the first 10 minutes ended with the Huskies on top 16-12.
The second period continued to be a defensive struggle. The Irish managed to get back into the contest due to a 12-point run that put Notre Dame up 18-16.
The half came to a close with Huskies G Christyn Williams making a short jump shot with two ticks left on the clock. Both teams went to the locker room with Connecticut holding a precarious 30-29 advantage.
Both teams came out of the dressing room intent on putting points up on the scoreboard. In fact, both teams had 20-plus point 3rd and 4th quarters.
In the third quarter, the Huskies shot a respectable 45% from the floor. The Irish, though, were on fire from the floor shooting at a 62% clip. Still, UConn was able to hold on to a 54-52 lead at the end of three quarters.
The final ten minutes was as good a quarter of women’s basketball that you’ll see. Connecticut went up seven with 8:19 to go in the contest forcing ND Coach Muffet McGraw to take a timeout to rally the troops. After another UConn basket made it 64-55 in favor of the Huskies, the Irish went on an 11 to 2 run to knot the score at 66 all.
The score seesawed back and forth until Notre Dame F Brianna Turner blocked UConn All-American F Napheesa Collier’s layup attempt with 49 seconds left in regulation. That led to a Notre Dame run out that forced a Huskies foul on ND G Arike Ogunbowale. #24 converted both free throws to give the Irish a 78-73 lead at the 40 second mark.
The Indiana squad then came up with a couple of key stops and converted three free throws to post its largest lead of the evening at 81-73 with six ticks left. UConn converted a late three-pointer to make the final arithmetic 81-76.
That will set the stage for the finals on Sunday. Defending champs Notre Dame takes on top seeded Baylor.
Neither team will back into the championship. As it should be.
BAYLOR NOTRE DAME
From the outset, each team’s game plan was apparent. Baylor was determined to play a tight man-to-man making life difficult for the Notre Dame perimeter three-point shooters.
The Irish had a totally different strategy. ND ran a collapsing zone and defied the Bears to beat them from the outside.
The early advantage went to the team from Texas. Baylor jumped out to an early lead with most of the damaging being done from the outside. Guards Juicy Landrum and Chloe Jackson contributed five and four point respectively to give the Bears, with the help of an 11-0 run, a 15-5 lead at the 5:00 minute mark. That forced Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw to call timeout to stop the Bears momentum.
The timeout did slow down the Baylor offensive juggernaut. The quarter ended with an Irish turnover and a runout layup by Jackson to make the arithmetic 25-14.
The second quarter started and there was no let up by the Bears on offense. BU stretched their lead to 17 at the 6:38 mark and Notre Dame was definitely on the ropes.
The Irish fought back as G Arike Ogunbowale started to heat up. #24 scored nine points in the second period as the Irish clawed their way back to cut the deficit to 12 at 43-31 at halftime.
The one first half stat that jumped out at you was the shooting percentage. Baylor was an astounding 62% from the floor compared to Notre Dame paltry 28% and only shooting four shots beyond the arc making two.
The third quarter saw ND start to chip away at the lead. The Irish reduced the margin to 53-46 at the 4:19 mark as Ogunbowale posted five points in that span. It started to feel like an Irish run was coming.
The Notre Dame momentum was halted at 4:01 when F Brianna Turner was whistled for her third personal foul. Before Coach McGraw could get #11 back into the fray at 2:11. Baylor stretched out their lead to a comfortable 60-46.
Then, as the Bears were cruising with a double-digit advantage, disaster struck. At the 1:22 mark, All American F Lauren Cox went down with a serious knee injury that would force #15 to head to the bench for the remainder of the contest.
Baylor seemed to right the ship until Ogunbowale hit a long bomb with two seconds left in the third period. That cut the Baylor lead to 66-55 after 30 minutes of play.
Baylor faced another dilemma early in the final period. Jackson committed her 4th foul at the 9:43 but Coach Kim Mulkey elected to keep #24 in the game. That’s when the Irish started to make a run and ND came with a vengeance.
With Cox out and Jackson in foul trouble, Notre Dame cut the margin to 66-63 with 8:38 remaining. The Irish came all the way back with a three by G Marina Mabrey to knot the score at 74 all with just over five minutes left in the contest.
With 3:17 remaining, Notre Dame took the lead at 77-76, for the first time since early in the opening period, with a Ogunbowale free throw. That was countered by a short jumper by the Bears C Kalini Brown at 2:33 to retake the lead.
Both teams came up with huge defensive stops until 47 seconds left when Irish F Jessica Sheppard ties game at 78 all with a free throw. Also, on that play, Baylor reserve F Nalyssa Smith fouled out forcing Coach Mulkey to go deeper into her bench.
Jackson hits a free throw jumper to put Baylor up again 78-76 at 34 seconds. Sheppard tied the score at 80 all with 16 seconds left by converting two more from the charity strip.
That set the stage for an exciting ending. Jackson was able to get a layup just over the outstretched arm of Turner to give the Bears an 82-80 advantage with 3 seconds left. To no one’s surprise, Notre Dame went to Ogunbowale who was fouled with just under two seconds left.
Unfortunately for the Irish, #24 had her first free throw rattle out and, when the senior from Milwaukee tried to miss the 2nd free throw, it went in. Baylor ran out the clock to secure the Bears third National Championship.
In summary, the Women’s Final Four came as advertised. Three great games where the outcome was in doubt up until the last minute. Just what the doctor ordered.