For one special night, Kalani Brown could put all the frustration and disappointment of not getting to a Final Four behind her.
In easily the most dominant Elite Eight in program history, the top-seeded Baylor Lady Bears routed second-seeded Iowa, 85-53, Monday night to get back to the Final Four for the fourth time overall and the first since winning it all in 2012.
“(There was) definitely frustration along the way, but it’s all paid off now,” said Brown, who had 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks to earn a spot on the all-tournament team. “I can finally check the Final Four off my list.” Together to Tampa – #TTT – has been this team’s mantra since last summer. But now, it’s more than just a catchy phrase or wristband reminder.
The Lady Bears (35-1) are headed to Tampa, Fla., for the Final Four and will face Oregon (33-4) at 6 p.m. CDT Friday at Amalie Arena. Notre Dame (34-3) knocked off Stanford, 84-68, in Monday’s Chicago Region final and will face UConn (35-2) in the other national semifinal at approximately 8:30 p.m., with the championship game set for 5 p.m. CDT Sunday.
“I am so happy for those seniors, I am so happy for those players, and I’m happy for Baylor University,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “Plaster that on the front page of every national newspaper. It doesn’t get any more positive than this.” Regional tournament MOP Lauren Cox had a monster double-double with 22 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals, while sophomore DiDi Richards followed up her career-best 25-point outing in the regional semifinals with 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals.
Joining Cox, Brown and Richards on the Greensboro Region all-tournament team was Chloe Jackson, a grad transfer from LSU who had 14 points, five rebounds and three assists. Iowa senior All-American Megan Gustafson also earned all-tournament honors, but she came up one rebound shy of breaking the NCAA single-season record of 33 double-doubles, finishing with 23 points and nine rebounds.
“They knew ahead of time that I was a pretty good rebounder and they had a little bit of a size advantage,” said Gustafson, who had zero rebounds in the second half. “So, they were just throwing extra bodies at me.”
Baylor’s perimeter defense also did its job on the Iowa guards, holding the starting trio of Makenzie Meyer, Tania Davis and Kathleen Doyle to a combined 22 points on 6-of-27 shooting overall and 3-of-9 from 3-point range.
“We’re kind of known for our defense, I would say, so we didn’t do anything different,” Richards said. “We just stayed outside and guarded them like we normally guard, because most teams shoot a lot of threes on us. So, it’s something we’re used to.”
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder knew this Baylor defense was good after looking at the stats, going through game film and scouting them courtside when the Lady Bears didn’t let South Carolina breathe.
“I didn’t realize it was that good, until you’re out there playing against them, how good their defense is,” said Bluder, whose team finished 29-7 in its first trip to the Elite Eight since 1993. “Megan did her part. I said coming into this game that we needed everybody to contribute, and unfortunately we didn’t get a lot out of contribution from other people.”
The Hawkeyes shot just 32.1 percent as a team for the game and went 0-for-8 from the floor in the last 7 ½ minutes of the third quarter as Baylor stretched a 14-point halftime lead to 65-42 going into the fourth.
“We don’t know that we’re going to score this many points. 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,” Mulkey said. “That’s the way I was taught and that’s the way I believe. . . . Nobody likes to be guarded for 40 minutes. It’s work. It’s hard.”
Baylor jumped out to 7-2 and 11-6 leads in the first quarter, but Iowa rallied to tie it with a Doyle layup off a steal. Richards made up for her turnover with back-to-back buckets as the Lady Bears reeled off eight unanswered points and took a 21-13 lead at the end of the first quarter.
In the two games at Greensboro, Richards was 18-of-24 from the floor and averaged 20.5 points. Her previous career high was 15 points.
“Transition, for one; offensive rebounding, the second thing; and thirdly, she and those post players just have it going on right now that they find her,” Mulkey said of the added offense from her defensive stopper. “We have helped her figure out how to be effective and not be a liability and not take her man and go double on the post as much as they were earlier in the season.”
The 6-foot-3 Gustafson already had nine points and four rebounds by the end of the first quarter, but the rest of her team scored just four points on 2-for-9 shooting.
“Megan is really crafty with the ball,” said the 6-7 Brown, who rotated with the 6-4 Cox on defending Gustafson in the low post.
“She’s going to get her points,” Cox said, “and we just couldn’t let that second and third player go off for them.”
Iowa’s high-water mark came when Doyle knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers and brought the Hawkeyes back within 31-23 at the midway point of the second quarter.
As they’ve done seemingly all year, the Lady Bears responded. Going with a big lineup that included 6-2 freshman NaLyssa Smith, Baylor closed the quarter on a 10-4 run and was up 41-27 at the break.
Putting any doubts aside, Baylor’s defense held the Hawkeyes to just three third-quarter field goals and 23.1 percent shooting in stretching the lead to 65-42. Cox was particularly dominant in the period, scoring eight points to go with four boards, two assists and two blocks.
“The thing that is so impressive about Lauren Cox is we had four or five post players that she had to come in and play with as a freshman,” Mulkey said. “But, it didn’t scare her. She was like, ‘That doesn’t scare me, Coach. My time will come, and I will work until you have to play me.”’
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, and her players dumped a bucket of confetti on her, Mulkey was reflecting on the players like Nina Davis, Niya Johnson, Alexis Jones, Sheila Lambert and Danielle Crockrom that never got a chance to play in a Final Four.
“It’s what you want for every kid you coach,” she said. “But, some of those great players missed out on a chance to go to at least one. And as a coach, you always think about them. But, I will always tell you, they are a part of this. . . . That’s what makes this special is because even though they physically may not have been able to get there themselves, truly we’re all a part of this program. They are all a part of it.”