By Matt Larsen
The No. 1 seed Lady Bears fought off a persistent West Virginia squad Tuesday night, closing out an 82-68 win to advance to Dallas for the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
“I thought it was a physical game, a very physical game,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “I just thought everybody did something good tonight. I thought the fans were outstanding; I thought the students showed up. Don’t ever take a Sweet 16 for granted.”
The opening tip said much about the opening minutes.
Baylor usually controls the tip with little difficulty thanks to sophomore Brittney Griner’s 6-foot-8 presence in the circle.
Though Griner managed to get most of the ball off the tip, the Lady Bears had to battle for several seconds to gain control of the loose ball.
Similarly, Griner and company struck first with a layup but surrendered two quick baskets to let the Mountaineers take a 4-2 lead.
A couple more lead changes ensued before senior Melissa Jones hit a jumper to go ahead 8-7.
A collective effort from four Baylor starters lengthened the lead to 20-8 at the 13-minute mark.
After four and half minutes without a field goal, Vanessa House connected on a three to spark her team’s offense. The timely trey would foreshadow another well-timed three after the break.
Just past the midway mark in the first 20 minutes, Griner picked up her second foul and took a seat for the rest of the half.
Baylor missed the presence of its leading scorer and rebounder as the Mountaineers pulled back within seven thanks largely to senior Liz Repella’s 13 first-half points.
The Lady Bears re-distanced themselves with a couple successful trips to the free throw line and a Brooklyn Pope jumper to take a 43-32 lead into the locker room.
“We don’t have Brittney in foul trouble very often,” Mulkey said.
“We were either up 11 or 12 when she went out, and we maintained the lead. So they didn’t cut into the lead. So I guess those other players that don’t have names can play.”
Baylor added little by little to its lead after retaking the floor until the Lady Bears found themselves up 53-37 at the 15:20 mark.
Much like her first-half spark, House drained a three when her team needed it most during a second-half lull.
The three kicked off a 16-9 run that pulled the Mountaineers within single digits.
Sophomore Kimetria Hayden put a dagger in the Mountaineers’ comeback, however, hitting a three of her own with 8:40 left that set the tone for the remainder of the game.
Shortly after, WVU’s Asya Bussie picked up her fifth foul, finishing her night with nine points and two boards.
Griner peaked in Bussie’s absence, muscling her way to five straight points with a free throw and two buckets. The Naismith finalist ended with 30 points, four rebounds, four assists, eight blocks and went 12 of 15 from the line.
“We knew they weren’t going to go anywhere with five seniors on the team,” Griner said. “Nobody wants it to be their last game, so they were going to make runs. So I just knew I had to try to do something to help our team, make them come to me so I can hit the open player.”
Repella, the Mountaineers’ leading scorer, refused to be quieted too soon and connected on several attempts from behind the arc and from the line.
The senior came up just one short of leading all scorers, posting a season-high 29 against the nation’s top defense.
“Every time they needed scoring or a rebound or something to get them going, she was the one who did that,” fellow senior Melissa Jones said. “She’s that spark on that team.”
Despite Repella’s efforts, the Lady Bears showed the maturity necessary to close out the win against a team packed with seniors.
“It means a lot to our school,” Mulkey said of the Sweet 16 landmark.
“Some coaches coach a lifetime and don’t make it to a Sweet 16. Some players play and don’t ever get there. I want the players to enjoy it. While we’re extremely excited in the locker room, and we don’t take these things for granted, this team has a bigger mission and a bigger goal.”
The Lady Bears will face Wisconsin-Green Bay at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday in Dallas.