By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer
There are few more heartbreaking ways to end a season than a last-second loss.
The Baylor women’s basketball team experienced just that on Monday night, falling in their Elite Eight matchup to the Connecticut Huskies, 69-67. The loss eliminates Baylor from title contention and sends UConn to their 12th straight Final Four. Head coach Kim Mulkey has seen her fair share of talented teams and knows this Baylor group was among the best of them.
“[They were] very much Final Four, national championship worthy,” Mulkey said. “They’re as good as anybody that’s left.”
Baylor got strong production from their guards, as DiJonai Carrington erupted for 22 points and seven rebounds, joined by her backcourt companion Moon Ursin, who scored 13 points to go along with six rebounds. Forward NaLyssa Smith was, as per usual, very effective, shooting better than 50% from the field and 100% from the free throw line. Smith posted 13 points, 14 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots.
As a team, the Lady Bears struggled to shoot from the floor. The team shot under 40% on the night, with two quarters reaching 31% or lower. Carrington had seen the bright lights of the NCAA tournament before, during her time at Stanford, so Mulkey knew she’d be able to come through in the big moments.
“She’s a big time player,” Mulkey said. “I’m grateful that I got to coach her, and she stepped up big time for us, not just in this game, but all year long. I thought she was pretty special out there myself.”
The first quarter was characterized by a monster comeback from the Lady Bears. Down 16-4 early, Baylor came storming back to make the game competitive. Carrington made a number of key defensive plays to keep the Huskies on their heels and convert defense into offense.
The second quarter was a back-and-forth affair, showing the competitive nature of both teams. The Baylor defense was able to hold star UConn guard Paige Bueckers in check, while creating offensive opportunities of their own. Carrington continued to come up big for the Lady Bears, finishing the half with 14 points to help the Lady Bears take the lead.
Baylor continued to add to their lead in the third, stretching the deficit to as much as nine. Then, things took a turn. Senior guard DiDi Richards sustained a leg injury and would hardly see the court for the rest of the game. Mulkey knew the Richards injury would hamper the team and that it could change the course of the game.
“I knew it had to be a hamstring, because that’s what she grabbed. Swung the whole momentum,” Mulkey said. “I’m so tired of injuries. Lauren Cox’s injury in the  national championship game and we hung on and won that. Injuries are impactful. Injuries are impactful through the course of the year, but you have time to make it up. You don’t have time to make it up in a game.”
UConn was able to capitalize on the absence of one of the nation’s premier defenders, going on a monster 19-2 run to regain control of the contest. The run bled into the beginning of the fourth, where it looked like the Huskies might be out of reach.
The fourth quarter was another competitive one, with the Lady Bears again attempting to battle back and advance to the Final Four. Freshman guard Sarah Andrew’s took the floor in Richards’ place, and Carrington began to take over. A few missed free throws from the Huskies gave Baylor a chance to win it in the final seconds. Carrington took it to the rim, looking for a foul. She wouldn’t get it.
Baylor went home with another Elite Eight berth, just shy of ending the Connecticut Final Four streak. The no-call on the final shot was immediately seen as controversial, but Carrington felt she knew exactly what happened.
“I really don’t see it as controversial,” Carrington said. “I’ve already seen the replay, and one girl fouled me in my face, and one girl fouled me on my arm. So, at that point you can’t do anything else. We drew up a play, Lyss got fouled posting up, and I got fouled driving. Nothing you can really do about that situation in particular.”