By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
GREENSBORO, N.C. – No. 1-seeded Baylor women’s basketball advanced to its first Final Four since 2012 after defeating No. 2 seed Iowa 85-53 on Monday night in Greensboro, N.C.
The Big 12 and now NCAA East Regional Champions were led by four double-digit scorers, including junior forward Lauren Cox and sophomore guard DiDi Richards with double-double games. Cox helped clinch the Elite Eight matchup with 22 points and 11 points, and Richards fell just shy of a triple-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and six steals.
Defensively, Baylor snapped Iowa center Megan Gustafson’s 33 game double-double streak, by containing her to 23 points and nine rebounds. Mulkey said a strong defense was the only guarantee in the ball game.
“We don’t know that we’re going to score this many points every night,” Mulkey said. “What we do know is we can defend you and we’re going to give everything we have on the defensive end of the floor. That’s the way I was taught and that’s the way I believe, and all these high-octane offenses now, nobody wants to believe post game is effective any more; I do. Nobody likes to be guarded for 40 minutes. It’s work. It’s hard.”
The post matchup was evident early, as the first quarter opened with two unusual shots from outside the paint from senior center Kalani Brown. With back-to-back turnovers and tight defense, the game was a back-and-forth battle. Halfway through the quarter, Iowa went on a 5-0 run to tie the game at 11 before the Lady Bears began gaining momentum.
The battle of the posts continued with both teams playing aggressive for rebounds, and lots of pushing during rotations. Gustafson would account for nine of Iowa’s 13 first quarter points.
Going into the second quarter, Cox switched to cover Gustafson. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Iowa’s Kathleen Doyle and a two-minute Baylor scoring drought would put Iowa back in the game and only down eight.
Four consecutive layups gave the Lady Bears’ an 8-0 run, as the Hawkeyes were 1-of-8 from the field. Cox would hold Gustafson to only four points in the second quarter. Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder felt her team relied too heavily on Gustafson.
“There were several of those, I felt like, where we just had the long droughts,” Bluder said. “You know, I thought that Megan did her part. I said coming into this game that we needed everybody to contribute, and unfortunately we didn’t get a lot of contribution from other people. You know, again, I know they gave me all. I know that they worked as hard as they could. I know that they believed and came in here wanting it, but today, we just didn’t get the job done.”
The third quarter opened with Baylor on top 41-27. Thanks to blocks from Cox and freshman NaLyssa Smith, the Lady Bears re-established their defense and began to dominate the paint with the help of Jackson and Cox. The Big 12 Champions shot 52% from the field and held the Hawkeyes to 23%. For the last six minutes of the quarter, Iowa was unable to notch any field goals, their only points coming from seven free throws.
The fourth quarter could be summarized in two words: slow and persistence. The Lady Bears relaxed their style of play, allowing them to read both the Hawkeyes’ offense and defense, and respond.
Iowa was unable to counter, only notching four field goals in the fourth quarter. Baylor fans rose to their feet and the colosseum erupted into Tampa chants as the final seconds came to an end and Baylor clinched the win, 85-53.
Four of Baylor’s starters were recognized at the end of the game for the All-Regional All-Tournament Team – senior guard Chloe Jackson, Brown, Richards, and Cox. Cox was also recognized as the Most Outstanding Regional Player.
The Lady Bears are one stop away from the NCAA Championship matchup as they take on the Oregon Ducks on Friday in Tampa Bay, Fla. Cox said the teams focus is making it all the way.
“We’re just learning that we’re determined to make our final goal, which we did, to make it to Tampa,” Cox said. “Now win a National Championship. I think it says a lot about our defense and the way that we score the ball. We’re getting up and we’re not letting people get back into the game.”