By Jeffrey Swindoll
OKLAHOMA CITY — Sophomore forward Nina Davis scored 26 points, but it was not enough to trump the Lady Bears’ few, yet crucial mistakes in Baylor’s season-ending 77-68 loss on Sunday to one-seed Notre Dame in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
The two-seed Lady Bears faced the toughest challenge all year at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City: the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame posted four players in double figures while the Lady Bears finished with just two. Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen, who was named the Oklahoma City region’s most outstanding player after the game, finished with 23 points, behind only Davis. Allen played all 40 minutes of the game and was a nuisance for Baylor’s defense throughout the night.
Baylor had its chance to have a firm grip on the game, taking a nine-point lead midway through the first half. Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw smartly called a timeout to regroup her team. The Fighting Irish adjusted well after the timeout, taking a two-point lead at the half.
“I thought we kind of held our patience,” McGraw said. “We looked a little panicky on the court for the first probably six or eight minutes and I thought we calmed down. That’s what we kept talking about in the huddle, do what we talked about, do what we’ve been doing all year.”
The Lady Bears struggled in the second half with foul trouble. Late in the game, there came a point where Baylor was playing with three players that were just one foul away from fouling out. Notre Dame attempted 24 free throws while Baylor took just nine shots from the line. Such a disparity in drawing and committing fouls was a key factor in the Lady Bears’ demise on Sunday, Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said.
“When you have two teams of equal ability, playing their hearts out and it’s back and forth in critical moments, the team that does something — make a play — usually wins,” Mulkey said.
Senior post Sune Agbuke, Baylor’s lone senior on the team, played her last game on Sunday, and it was far from her most efficient. In the Lady Bears’ first regional game on Friday, Agbuke, a player that Mulkey said is “just not a dirty player,” was called for a flagrant-one foul.
She earned her second flagrant foul of the tournament on Sunday. The Baylor law student did her best to plead not-guilty, but to no avail. The flagrant was the start of a discouraging night for Agbuke.
“I didn’t really understand what I could do different,” Agbuke said. “It rattled me for a minute. But I was trying to play and trying to get where I was going. I don’t do things — I don’t throw elbows. I just felt like the rest of the game, the refs kept telling me don’t give us something to look at, like I was doing it on purpose, and I wasn’t.”
Agbuke was at the forefront of Baylor’s most detrimental errors. She committed an errant pass in the first half that led to a Notre Dame fastbreak. Agbuke dashed back to make up for her error. However, Notre Dame missed the layup and Agbuke was the closest player to the rebound.
Agbuke made her third mistake on the same play: failing to grab the rebound. Notre Dame recovered it and found Madison Cable for a three-pointer at the top of the arc. Mulkey, furious on the sideline, called a timeout and directed herself at Agbuke as the Lady Bears approached the bench. Frustration was starting to take form on Baylor’s side.
She stayed clean for most of the game, but perhaps Agbuke’s biggest gaffe of the night came in the final minute of play, down by four points. Junior guard Alexis Prince shot an airball that fell into Agbuke’s hands under the basket. It should have been a routine layup from point-blank range, but she missed a chance to make it a one-possession game.
Baylor never came close to shutting the gap in the final sequences. Notre Dame maintained control of the game until the final buzzer.
“We knew that [second chance points] was something we couldn’t let happen,” Davis said. “We couldn’t let them get offensive rebounds, and we let that happen in critical moments. They had two or three rebounds at critical moments, and that cost us the game.”