By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
GREENSBORO, N.C. – No. 1 seed Baylor women’s basketball advanced to the Elite Eight for the eighth time in the last 10 years, and the first time since 2017, after defeating No. 4 seed South Carolina in the Sweet 16 93-68 on Saturday afternoon in Greensboro, N.C.
Baylor held South Carolina to 33 percent shooting on the floor, marking the 39th consecutive game that the Lady Bears have held their opponents below 50 percent shooting. Kim Mulkey’s team held the Gamecocks leading scorers, Tyasha Harris and Alexis Jennings to only five points each. South Carolina was led by junior guard Te’a Cooper with 17 points.
All five starters for the Lady Bears scored in double figures, led by sophomore guard DiDi Richard’s career high 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting. Junior forward Lauren Cox and senior center Kalani Brown had double-double games – Cox with 17 points and 14 rebounds and Brown with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Juicy Landrum and Chloe Jackson added 10 points apiece.
Head coach Kim Mulkey said it wasn’t a new part of the game plan to have Richards go off on the opponent.
“That’s happened all year. I think they just read each other,” Mulkey said. “They watch, particularly DiDi, because people won’t think that she’ll be an offensive threat. She reads what her defender does. She knows where to cut, when to cut, and they just got that connection. They play a lot of games together.”
The game opened with an early back-and-forth battle of missed shots. Richards with a second-chance jumper gave Baylor the first points of the game, and her next basket became the start of a Lady Bears 6-0 run.
Baylor’s bench was on their feet, cheering and stomping to rile up their teammates on the court as the Gamecocks couldn’t keep up and trailed at the end of the first quarter 24-11.
The South Carolina scoring drought continued as Baylor went on a 15-2 run, led by Richards who was 3-for-3 from the field.
Part of the Lady Bears’ first half success was due to the Gamecocks sloppy ball work, with nine turnovers and 10 points off those turnovers for the Lady Bears.
Richards collected 15 first-half points, making all but one of her shots and helping Baylor’s lead grow to 49-23 at the break.
The Lady Bears had a slower pace entering the third quarter. Both teams opened with 10 points before South Carolina began gaining momentum, outscoring them 17-13 thanks to a three minute long scoreless stretch for the Lady Bears.
It wasn’t until the last three minutes of the quarter that the Lady Bears put a stop to South Carolina’s momentum and went on a 6-0 run. The Gamecocks outscored the Lady Bears 29-23 in the quarter but still trailed 72-52.
Richards said the key to responding to the Gamecocks momentum was calming down and encouraging one another.
“Baylor basketball is a game full of runs you know,” Richards said. “We didn’t get into ourselves when they went on a run. I think we handled it well by looking at each other and just calming down. If you look at your teammate, and like Lauren who’s like, ‘DiDi you got it, just calm down,’ and Lani is like, ‘DiDi you got this,’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’ I feel alright. I pass the message on to Juicy [Landrum] and Chloe [Jackson]. We really have each other in a tight circle.”
The Lady Bears continued to struggle early in the fourth quarter, but then regrouped and kept the lead to close out the game. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said the team mainly struggled because of its youth and inexperience.
“I thought we had some momentum,” Staley said. “But here’s the bottom line, we didn’t really harp on them as staff, you just don’t want to put that much pressure on your young team. Only maybe like three players have experienced being in the Sweet 16. The roles of some of the ones who weren’t apart of those Sweet 16’s and Elite Eight’s and Final Four’s, this is their first time and to ask them to perform at a high level against a National Championship contender team was a bit much.”
Marking the Lady Bears’ 26th straight win, Mulkey said Baylor is firing on all cylinders right now.
“Listen we’re on a roll and that’s what it takes in the playoffs,” Mulkey said. “These kids are focused. These kids, they never wavered in how they approach basketball game. They’re funny. They’re talented. Elite Eight Monday.”
The Lady Bears advance to the Elite Eight to face Iowa on Monday at 6 p.m. in Greensboro, N.C.