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Baylor Back to Big Game, Defeating Oregon, 72-67

Baylor Back to Big Game, Defeating Oregon, 72-67

Baylor punched its ticket to its first national championship game since it won its last title in 2012 in a thrilling back-and-forth battle with Oregon, 72-67, on Friday.

Baylor punched its ticket to its first national championship game since it won its last title in 2012 in a thrilling back-and-forth battle with Oregon, 72-67, on Friday. The game was a perfect mix of high-quality play and drama with neither team pulling away until the very end. Let’s see how it happened:

A tale of two talents

Baylor had a massive advantage inside, and Oregon had a massive advantage on the perimeter. Unsurprisingly, both teams worked hard to utilize their greatest strengths.

Before the game, Oregon’s own stated keys to the game were to make at least 12 threes on a good percentage and stay under 10 turnovers. The Ducks entered the game with the best three-point percentage in Division-I (41.5 percent) on 869 attempts and were fourth in the nation in made triples (362). It was no secret Oregon would take a bunch of threes in this game, especially with how big Baylor is inside, and it did. The Ducks chucked from beyond the arc 32 times and connected on 12, hitting their desired amount of threes on a 37.5 percentage, which should have also been enough to meet their bar. That means 36 of Oregon’s 67 points came from deep.

Baylor didn’t even bother with the perimeter offensively. The Bears went 0-of-3 from beyond the arc, which is absolutely unheard of in the modern game. To only attempt three triples, not make a single one and still expect to win? How does that work in 2019? Well, when you have center Kalani Brown and forward Lauren Cox, that’s how it works. Nineteen of Baylor’s 31 made field goals came inside the paint, and Brown and Cox were responsible for 15 of those. The Bears worked the paint all night long, through drives and post play, and it unquestionably worked.

We were treated to two totally separate schools of offensive thought in this one, and it played out beautifully down the stretch.

Brown and Cox were unstoppable

There was nothing Oregon could do about them. Nothing. They’re too big, too strong, and too good. The Ducks could not keep the ball from entering the post, and once it did, it was essentially game over. Brown shot 9-of-12 (75 percent) and Cox shot 9-of-14 (64.3 percent), both ridiculous stat lines from the floor. Those two were getting anywhere they wanted, and most importantly, were hitting from all over. Both players, and especially Cox, showed an ability to hit mid-range jumpers when given the space, and that forced Oregon to make a decision: give them that space on the high post in an attempt to take away shots at the rim, or go out and guard them but risk leaving the low post open. The Ducks often elected to protect the rim, and Brown and Cox made them pay for it. Cox and Brown each went 3-of-5 on two-point jumpers, and you could argue those 12 points were the difference in the game right there.

When it was all said and done, Brown had 22 points and Cox had 21 points, combining for nearly 60 percent of Baylor’s total score.

That’s not even mentioning the job those two did on the defensive end. Forward Ruthy Hebard was held to perhaps her worst offensive game of the season, going 2-of-4 from the field and scoring four points. Now, Oregon’s game plan wisely did not involve feeding Hebard the ball down low much because head coach Kelly Graves understood the matchups. Hebard was also used for screens quite a bit, and she set plenty of great ones. But even still, that’s the fewest amount of shots Hebard attempted in any game this year and her lowest point total. Baylor swallowed her up, as well as many shots around the rim.

Only 18 of Oregon’s points came from in the paint, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Ducks missed 15 shots inside the paint, nine of those layups. Rarely did Oregon have any uncontested looks at the rim, with Brown and Cox altering and swatting shots left and right. It was going to be crucial for Baylor’s rotations to be strong when guard Sabrina Ionescu inevitably beat her defender on the perimeter, and those rotations were crisp.

ESPN brought Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey on at halftime of the second game and asked her about her team’s performance.

“How about that old-school basketball?” she asked rhetorically before explicitly sending a message to the nation’s recruits watching from home who play on the inside, saying at Baylor, she won’t just use them for screens, “we’ll give you the ball, baby.”

Baylor held Ionescu in relative check

When you’re facing a player as good as Ionescu, she will put up numbers no matter what. But holding her to 18 points on 6-of-24 shooting and 4-of-11 from three? Any coach would be thrilled with that, and Mulkey surely is. Baylor made it difficult for her all night, aggressively denying her the ball and constantly throwing a multitude of defenders at her with hands and bodies all around.

The Bears held her to a slow start, only allowing her to get up two shots in the first quarter, both misses. Then in the fourth, the defense ratcheted up further, again holding her to 0 points, this time on 0-of-7 shooting. Ionescu did find a rhythm in the second and third quarters, but it was never going to be enough for Oregon to have its best player scoring for only 20 minutes of the 40-minute game.

Additionally, Ionescu turned the ball over three times. In total, Oregon committed 13 turnovers. Remember how many turnovers the Ducks said they would be allowed in this one? Well, 13 wasn’t going to cut it and didn’t, and the three Ionescu had didn’t help either, although all five starters equally gave away the ball.

Sabally’s foul trouble

Part of what made Oregon so great this season was the balanced offensive attack. Ionescu received most of the praise, and rightfully so, but there are plenty of other women on this team who can fill up a stat sheet, and Sabally is one of the best.

But she took herself out of the game with fouls, some of which were foolish. In the first quarter, she picked up two fouls in a minute and a half, with the second one coming 85 feet from the basket. She committed her third late in the third quarter, then added a fourth 16 seconds into the final period. Sabally only played 22 minutes in total, forcing Graves to give a large chunk of her normal minutes to forward Oti Gildon, who averages 4.6 points per game compared to Sabally’s 16.6.

This made it easier for an already dominant defense to defend. Baylor could focus more attention on Ionescu and company with Sabally sitting on the bench. Sabally still scored 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting (3-of-7 from three) in her 22 minutes of play, so she was effective when she was on the floor. You have to wonder if this game could have gone differently had she not racked up the fouls, but it doesn’t matter now.

Looking forward

Baylor will play Notre Dame at 6pm on Sunday for the 2019 crown, and it will be fascinating to watch Baylor’s smashmouth basketball take on another high-flying offense and to see if the Bears handle guard Arike Ogunbowale the same way they did Ionescu. There’s not a lot opposing teams can do about the 6-foot-7 Brown and 6-foot-4 Cox, and you can expect to see plenty more of them Sunday. Mulkey’s Bears are a vestage to the former glory of post-dominant basketball, and even in the modern era, they’re proving that with the right personnel and leader at the helm, it can still work. But can it deliver a national championship?

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