The defending champs against the current number one
In a battle of basketball royalty, Baylor traveled to Hartford to face the Connecticut Huskies, the undefeated team ranked atop the major national polls. Baylor’s rout of UConn last season served notice that teams would struggle to keep up with the physicality of Kim Mulkey’s group, and that ultimately proved true in the NCAA Tournament, won by the Lady Bears.
Ultimately, a combination of surprising versatility from beyond the arc and toughness inside helped Baylor topple the top-ranked Huskies, ending Connecticut’s 98-game winning streak at home, 74-58.
So what does it all mean? Here’s what we learned Thursday night:
Lauren Cox has a long way to go
Kalani Brown wasn’t walking through the doors of the XL Center Thursday. The new duo up front for Baylor is Cox and Nalyssa Smith, who has followed her freshman season by largely matching her precocious rate stats in 40% more minutes so far this season. But while Cox ranged far and wide around Brown’s more traditional five role, the current version of Cox simply isn’t moving very well yet, either as she continues to recover from the stress reaction in her right foot, or due to issues of basketball fitness related to that time away from the court.
The results were a UConn team that shouldn’t have the ability to score at will around the rim doing just that, especially early, hitting Baylor with repeated backdoor cuts.
To be clear, Cox is an all-world talent, and we saw enough of it to remind us, especially from a pair of threes she sank in the first half. She finished in double figures. And come March, it is unlikely teams can challenge her at the rim in the same way.
But it may be that Cox needs to be a more traditional five herself down the stretch for Baylor to be its best self. And that’s a limitation, with Smith athletic, but not yet possessing the range to stretch defenses, a key part of what allowed Baylor to play so efficiently with two bigs during the Cox-Brown years. Smith, though, is tough, bouncy, finishes through contact. It’ll work plenty well. Weep not for Kim Mulkey.
Adjustments nothing new for Mulkey
“We didn’t play a lot of old-school basketball,” Kim Mulkey told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after watching her team taking 13 threes in one half and 21 for the game. (For context: Baylor attempted 15 threes in the final three games of their championship run last season.)
But in the same way that Auriemma decided to attack the basket, crash the boards at both ends and end possessions in a way the Huskies simply couldn’t last season, Mulkey recognized that a size advantage against Connecticut meant that people like Cox and Te’a Cooper (each of whom had several inches on their primary defender) could get their shots from anywhere around the arc.
Cooper in particular has limited her mistakes as she serves as primary facilitator of the Baylor offense.
There’s not a lot more here than this: it’s no accidents Geno Auriemma’s won 11 national championships and Kim Mulkey’s won three. But it’s a useful reminder, in handicapping the wide-open championship field this season, that these two programs have coaches at the helm who know the path.
UConn needs Crystal Dangerfield to be their best selves
Early on, both Christyn Williams and Megan Walker had dominant stretches. Both reached double figures by halftime, and Walker powered, in entirety, an 8-0 run late in the first half. Even so, Dangerfield missed six of her first seven shots, and had only a pair of assists through her first 25 minutes on the floor.
On a night when Olivia Nelson-Ododa had to contend with Cox, that left Dangerfield to be the third scorer, and primary facilitator, for this team. Too much of the offense came from Williams and Walker creating for themselves. And they had less space to do so without the rainbows falling from Dangerfield.
But Dangerfield scored ten in the third quarter alone, and a final flourish in that period cut the Baylor lead to 55-52. Her willingness to take over, and gather her eager, younger teammates, helped keep Connecticut in the game.
But Dangerfield melted back into the background in the fourth quarter, going scoreless until the final minute. And the Connecticut offense disappeared with her.
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