Baylor closer, but UConn still rules
Baylor pushed No. 1 UConn to the limit before falling 65-64
UConn was saved by its young players, especially guard Bria Hartley
Baylor figures to improve and test UConn again at the Final Four
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Three weeks before she would travel to face an opponent she thought often about this summer, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey sat in her office at the Ferrell Center and reflected on the moment when last season was lost.
Playing a spirited second half against UConn in last year's national semifinals in San Antonio, Baylor clawed its way back into a game most thought it would lose, cutting UConn's halftime lead from 13 to three with 14:55 remaining. Staggered, UConn coach Geno Auriemma did something that rarely happened last year: He called a timeout to settle his team down.
At that moment, the green-and-gold side of the Alamodome was in a frenzy, and Mulkey herself was a fist-pumping vision of intensity, imploring her team to finish the job. "But when we left that timeout, we did not know how to handle ourselves," Mulkey recalled. The true youth surfaced and the experience of UConn took over. "Was it mental fatigue? Was it conditioning? Was it inexperience? Was it lack of focus? Was it patting ourselves on the back? Whatever it was, when we came out of that timeout, that's when we lost the game."
Tuesday night in Hartford everything was different except the result. UConn won its 80th straight game, call it what it was: survival. The final was 65-64 and Auriemma, in speaking to the crowd of 12,628 at the XL Center, sounded like a relieved man. "We just a beat a hell of a team," he said. "I don't think anyone has come in here in a long time and given us that kind of run."
Early on, the game looked like most UConn coronations. Senior All-America forward Maya Moore (who finished with a game-high 30 points, seven rebounds and six steals) was stroking mid-range jumpers from multiple spots on the court. Auriemma's plan to render 6-foot-8 Baylor All-American Brittney Griner invisible was working. (At one point Baylor's sophomore center went 22 minutes without scoring.) When Moore hit a jumper to give UConn a 44-29 lead with 16:02 left, UConn fans were no doubt already thinking about booking a hotel in Indianapolis for next April. Baylor only stayed in the game thanks to Odyssey Sims, the nation's top-rated freshman point guard recruit, who scored 14 of her 17 points in the first half.
But rather than fold as they did in San Antonio, the Bears dug in, and pulled off a 27-4 (yes, you read that right) second-half run to take a 56-48 lead with 6:51 left. It was keyed by Griner, who finished with 19 points and nine blocks, including 13 second-half points. But her 5-of-13 shooting from the line proved costly. "I don't know what happened on my free throws," a forlorn Griner said afterward.
It was the Huskies' young players who saved them. Freshman point guard Bria Hartley scored eight straight points in a span of 1:47, capping her personal run with a three that gave UConn a 63-60 lead it would not surrender.
Moore hit a clutch 16-foot jumper with 1:11 remaining that put the Huskies ahead 65-62, but Baylor's Melissa Jones scored on a putback with 36 seconds left to cut the lead to one. After Moore missed a jumper with six seconds remaining (Mulkey thought there should have been a shot clock violation but the refs ruled it a possession), Sims was late and short of the basket on a last-second heave from 30 feet. The UConn roster, featuring five freshman and two sophomores, rushed to the middle of the court as if they had won a title. Said the elder statesman Moore: "There is a time where you say, 'Man, we've never been here before, can we do it?' The way we answered that, it was beautiful."
Of course, the early moments of the game had the feel of November basketball, even if press row was filled with national writers from USA Today, the New York Times, and ESPN.com. UConn started the game 3-of-18 shooting while Baylor went 3-of-8 with nine turnovers. After Baylor jumped out to an 8-3 lead behind six points from Griner, Auriemma made a tactical decision to have Moore double the Baylor center in the post. Griner ended up fouling out both starting center Stefanie Dolson and backup Samarie Walker ("I've never seen a 6-8 female person before," Walker said) but did not dominate as she's done against other opponents.
The Huskies have not lost since the 2008 NCAA semifinals and this week they extended their run atop the women's basketball poll to 45 straight weeks. They are 16-0 against opponents ranked in the Top 10 during the streak and 275-11 all time while playing as the nation's No. 1 team. Now comes the road to the NCAA Division I basketball record of 88 consecutive victories -- set by the UCLA men. UConn can tie the record on Dec. 19 at Ohio State at Madison Square Garden and the record-breaker would come Dec. 21 at home against Florida State. The safe bet is that UConn will set the record before facing another epic challenge at Stanford on December 30. But what Baylor proved on Tuesday night is that it's not going to be a cakewalk to another title. "They don't have the depth they had and they are much younger," said Mulkey. "He (Geno) is like the rest of us now. He's trying to find the right players and I don't think he has had to do that in a while. But I compliment Connecticut. They were down eight and we could not put them away."
That might change in April, because Baylor is going to get better. Impact transfer Destiny Williams, a sophomore who played two seasons ago at Illinois, will be eligible on Dec. 20. Sims is going to get better, too, and it's unlikely many will be mentioning the loss of former point guard Kelli Griffin (who quit the team a week before the start of the regular season) by conference play.
Asked after the game what she learned about her basketball team, Mulkey didn't hesitate. "I learned I got a talented basketball team," Mulkey said, smiling, "and y'all better keep writing about them."