Lady Bears face hot-shooting Ducks in NCAA Final Four

Baylor freshman NaLyssa Smith celebrates a regular season win, as the Bears head to the final Four this weekend. Shae Koharski | Multimedia Journalist

By Ben Everett | Sports Editor

TAMPA, FLA. — No. 1-seed Baylor women’s basketball faces No. 2-seed Oregon at 6 p.m. Friday in Tampa, Fla., in the NCAA Final Four. The Lady Bears are 3-1 in semifinal matchups, with their only loss coming to University of Connecticut in 2010.

The Lady Bears made their goal clear from the start of the season: make a Final Four. But now that they are here, they aim to take home the trophy. Senior guard Chloe Jackson said the Lady Bears are set on not letting up.

“I would say it’s been a dream come true, just like I couldn’t have written a better story, honestly,” Jackson said. “Came here, wanted to win, to get to a Final Four. We achieved that. We won the Big 12, got to a Final Four. We’re not content. Just want to keep pushing, stay focused to win a championship.”

Junior forward Lauren Cox is convinced that a strong defense is the reason for the team’s success.

“We’re just learning that we’re determined to make our final goal, which we did, to make it to Tampa, and now win a National Championship,” Cox said. “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.”

Baylor’s path to the National Championship game goes through Oregon, which is a dangerous 3-point shooting team. The Ducks have four players that shoot better than 40% from 3-point range. In the 88-84 Elite Eight win over No. 1 seed Mississippi State, the Ducks made 13-of-26 3-pointers. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said the Lady Bears have played teams like Oregon before.

“We actually have seen teams that shoot the three a lot,” Mulkey said. “We see it in our league. We also have seen it because of our height advantage inside. We’ve seen teams change their approach when they play us that they do shoot more threes than they normally would. It’s not going to be uncommon or uncomfortable for us to expect that and to see that.”

Cox, who was presented with the Elite 90 award for the highest GPA among Final Four players on Wednesday, said some of the responsibility falls on her to protect the perimeter.

“I’m going to have to go out and guard on the perimeter some, guard the three-point shot,” Cox said. “I’ve been doing that all year. That definitely helps to have that experience.”

Oregon is led by junior guard Sabrina Ionescu, who is the projected No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. Earlier this season, Ionescu broke the NCAA Division I record for triple-doubles in a single season (7) and triple-doubles in a career (17).

While the Lady Bears have yet to score below 85 points in a single game in the NCAA Tournament, they are known more for their suffocating defense. Baylor gave up only 53 points in the Elite Eight win over Iowa and has yet to surrender over 70 points in a game in the tourney so far. For the entire season, the Lady Bears are allowing 54.6 points per game and are holding their opponents to 31.4% shooting from the field. Mulkey said the defense is what drives this Baylor team.

“I think if you just look at field goal percentage defense, that has to be an area that doesn’t get talked about very much because it’s not pretty. Everybody wants to talk about the three ball. Everybody wants to talk about offensive stuff, how many points people are scoring. I think our defense is special.”

Following the game against Oregon, Notre Dame and UConn will play in the other semifinal. If the Lady Bears beat the Ducks, they will face one of those two teams for the National Championship at 5 p.m. CDT Sunday.