By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
The second-seeded Lady Bears battled a much stiffer competition from Michigan than they saw Friday night against Grambling State in their opener during the 2018 Women’s NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines managed to keep it close for the first half before Baylor used a 15-2 run in the third to turn a three-point lead into a 59-44 advantage. The Lady Bears ramped up the defensive intensity and suffocated Michigan in the second half en route to an 80-58 win, earning a trip to the Sweet Sixteen for the 10th time under head coach Kim Mulkey.
Mulkey said this team has had to deal with a lot of issues off the court, but they haven’t quit on the court and because of it, they have been rewarded for their effort.
“These kids have pulled for each other. It’s been a tough year,” Mulkey said. “But now you go on the court, it is my most enjoyable team because when I turn that corner out of that tunnel every day, I know what I’m getting out of them as people. I know what I’m getting out of them as competitors.”
The Baylor defense forced Michigan into 19 turnovers and converted those miscues into 28 points, including 12 in transition off the fast break. When Michigan was able to get into its second-half sets, Baylor consistently contested and forced the Wolverines into difficult jump shots. The Baylor guards deflected passes and collected 12 steals, including three apiece from senior forward Dekeiya Cohen and sophomore guard Juicy Landrum.
Junior center Hallie Thome, who stands six-feet-five-inches tall, had a strong first half with 18 points scored and a perfect nine for nine from the floor. Later junior center Kalani Brown and sophomore forward Lauren Cox limited her to just four points on two-of-nine shooting, and Thome finished with a game-high 22 points.
Cox said they let Thome get too comfortable in the first half and she was able to take advantage of them in the post.
“She’s really long, and she’s really skilled around the basket,” Cox said. “We had to really adjust. We kind of bodied up to her a little bit, just had to time our blocks better.”
Thome said Baylor began to pack the paint to take away her quick moves in the post, forcing her to turn toward Brown, who was ready for her baseline shot.
“I think in the beginning I was very comfortable. I felt like I had a lot of room to score, using my quick moves against them, my speed. It helped me a lot,” Thome said. “I think they kind of realized what I was trying to do. A lot of time my spin moves, the guards were all packing the paint, getting little touches. Then Kalani locked down on my baseline hook. She’s an outstanding player.”
Another key for the Lady Bears’ was Landrum’s defense on Michigan’s all-time leading scorer, senior guard Katelynn Flaherty.
Flaherty got it going early for the Wolverines, connecting on four of her seven attempts from distance in the first half, while also facilitating the offense and dishing out three assists.
But Flaherty was invisible for the Wolverines in the second half, as Mulkey moved Landrum to the senior guard and moved freshman Alexis Morris to the other wing. Flaherty hit just two of her seven second half three-point attempts and finished with 18 points on six of 20 shooting.
“I think I played great defense on Flaherty. She’s a really great player. They set a lot of screens for her,” Landrum said. “But I think I really did a good job of chasing her around the screens and getting over screens. So, I mean, I held her to three points in the second half. I guess that’s a pretty good job.”
On the offensive end, it was a balanced scoring attack for the Lady Bears as all five starters finished in double figures. Cox yet again appeared to be the best player on the floor, tallying her 15th double-double this season with 18 points and 16 rebounds. Morris and Landrum each scored 17, while Landrum hit all three of Baylor’s shots from beyond the arc. Brown chipped in with 16 points and eight rebounds and Cohen had 12 points and nine rebounds.
Mulkey told her team Thursday that she wanted to see them run when they had the opportunity. The guards did just that, as Morris, Landrum and Cohen looked to push the pace whenever they had the chance.
“I feel like when we push the ball, it makes us a better team,” Morris said. “Coach always tell me to work on the John Stockton curl.”
Morris also admitted she doesn’t know who John Stockton is.
Baylor shot 45 percent from the floor while holding Michigan to 39 percent for the game. Despite Thome’s 22 points, Baylor completely owned the paint, outscoring the Wolverines 50-26.
Even though Baylor upped the pressure and pulled away in the second half, Michigan gave them it all it could handle in the opening 20 minutes.
Thome opened the game by going right at Brown and scoring an easy bucket. Flaherty knocked down three early three-pointers as Michigan had a five point advantage at 19-14 late in the first quarter.
But it was Cox that helped right the ship, scoring the next eight points and sparking a 13-0 run and giving the Lady Bears a 27-19 lead.
But Michigan continued to battle with a heavy dose of Thome in the post to keep it at an eight-point deficit at 42-34 at halftime.
As Baylor turned up the defensive pressure, the Lady Bears eventually wore down Michigan, extending its lead to 17 after three quarters.
Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico said Baylor’s physicality and ability to rebound is what dug the Wolverines’ grave.
“They wore us down, for sure. No question about it,” Barnes Arico said. “I thought we battled and kind of hung tough and really fought and really tried to rebound in the first half. Then I thought they really wore us down physically.”
The defense continued to swarm in the fourth, holding Michigan to just three of 14 from the field in capping off the 22-point victory.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, fatigue had set in on both sides, as both Morris and Cox for Baylor played all 40 minutes, Landrum played 39 and Brown 38 for the Lady Bears. For Michigan, Thome played all but one minute, Flaherty played 38 and senior forward Jillian Dunston, who finished with zero points and missed all five of her shot attempts in her final game in a Wolverines uniform, played 35 minutes.
No. 2 Baylor (33-1) will take on No. 6 Oregon State, who upset No. 3 Tennessee 66-59 in the second round, in the Sweet Sixteen in Lexington, Ky. on Friday. Oregon State upset Baylor 60-57 in the 2016 Elite Eight. The time is to be determined.