STORRS, Conn. -- In the lead-up to the Baylor-Connecticut game, the question most asked -- can UConn stop Brittney Griner? -- was off the mark. Of course UConn can’t stop Griner; nobody can, though the Huskies did it pretty well for 20 minutes.
Unfortunately for the packed arena, a college game lasts 40 minutes, and Baylor won an exciting, competitive, defensive battle, 76-70.
The slim margin was not a surprise, as the teams are No. 1 and No. 3 for good reasons. Connecticut leads the nation in points scored, fewest points allowed, and field goal percentage defense. Baylor is first in field-goal percentage, assists and assist/turnover ratio. Who’s second in all three categories? Connecticut. Baylor is second nationally in scoring (by just 1.3 points), 22nd in points allowed, and 4th in field goal percentage defense.
Statistically, it’s a dead heat, but season statistics are not necessarily a good gauge at this level. In-game stats, though, can tell the tale – for example, Baylor forced 19 turnovers and shot 20 free throws to UConn’s four. And when Stephanie Dolson, forced to play all of those minutes without help from freshman Breanna Stewart, got worn down, Brittney Griner took over. In the first half, Griner caught the entry pass a step from the paint; in the second half, she caught that same entry pass with one foot in the paint. To get back to stats, in the final 8:34, she scored 13 of her 25 points.
Then again, the Huskies can score too, and the question for Baylor was whether the Bears’ superior height and quickness could disrupt UConn’s potent offense.
On paper, the matchups looked fascinating, with strengths and weaknesses for both teams.
For Connecticut, the key was not controlling Griner, but rather controlling point guard Odyssey Sims, a task the Huskies had not managed in the past. Sims had averaged 20 points in her two games against UConn, well above her 13.7 point career average. She is arguably the best point guard in the country, averaging 5.7 assists per game (admittedly with Griner available to receive the passes), and she is lightning quick. Does UConn have anyone who can control her? Not alone. Even super-defender Kelly Faris does not match Sims’ speed, and has failed to contain her in previous contests.
So Connecticut’s plan was to keep the ball out of her hands, trying to double team-early and high in the frontcourt, forcing her to pass from uncomfortable positions. Slowing Sims would force the action to the other Baylor guards, making them perform above their norm. Sims quickness, however, had defeated this tactic in the past.
Just as with Griner, UConn solved the Sims’ puzzle half the time. At the half, UConn had held her to one of 10 shooting (on a steal and fast break layup). She had just two assists, and the ball did not get to Griner on nearly enough possessions. The Huskies kept Sims out of the paint, and challenged her on every shot attempt.
More surprising was the defensive work of Dolson when Griner did get the ball. Working mostly one-on-one, Dolson was able to muscle Griner a step or two outside the block, where UConn’s normal defensive rotations had time to double. Coach Geno Auriemma was willing to give Griner the 22 points she averages, so long as each point was an effort.
In the first half, Dolson and company held Brittney to two-of-nine shooting, and made every possession a battle. Griner has become an excellent passer, however, and the beneficiaries of defensive doubleteams was her platooning frontcourt mates, supporting actors Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams.
Pope is a 6-2 offensive rebounding powerhouse, and the third leading scorer on her team, averaging 11.1 points like clockwork (18 consecutive double-figure games), at an efficient 56% shooting. Williams is slightly built and quicker, but is also an accomplished offensive rebounder, roaming the weak side so often left unchecked as Griner gets all the post attention. Although some combination of UConn forwards (Kiah Stokes, Morgan Tuck, Breanna Stewart) could adequately defend a player of Pope’s skills, that is without the presence of Griner. Pope and Williams kept Baylor close in the half with 15 points and 14 offensive boards between them.
But how ‘bout the other side of the ball? Connecticut had lost just one game, and has all those gaudy statistics for a reason. The Huskies own the seventh-best three point percentage (37.9) and third-most threes per game (nine) in the nation. For the first time in its history, the team has four players with more than 100 career threes and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis shoots just below 50% from outside the arc. If the Huskies hit their threes early and often, they could force defensive changes by Baylor that would open up the court, even with Griner guarding the paint as only she can do.
UConn is also a great passing team, and Dolson is again the key. She is both an excellent passer and an excellent shooter with her face to the basket, the latter a skill that worked to draw Griner a bit out of the paint all night. In the first 10 minutes, the Huskies played like an offensive machine and led 16-5 at the 12:00 mark.
Then came the turnovers. Connecticut averages just 13.6 turnovers per game, but against Baylor, they turned the ball over 11 times in the half, and Baylor crept back into the game. The Bears defense began to show life, and UConn shots started rimming out. Baylor kept running off the misses and scored ten fast break points, most in the last ten minutes of the half.
As Connecticut cooled, one player excelled. Mosqueda-Lewis has become a multi-dimensional player who, when aggressive, is very hard to guard. Her rebounding and variety of scoring options have both improved as she has learned to use her strength and quickness inside the three-point arc. Baylor has no one who can guard a motivated Mosqueda-Lewis alone. In this game, she came out aggressive, and stayed that way. In the first half, she tallied 13 points, ten rebounds and two blocks.
The other potential matchup problem for the Bears should have been freshman Breanna Stewart. At her best, the combination of height, versatility and shooting range that made her the high school player of the year can be a game changer. She is such a smooth player that it is easy to overlook her contributions. She is the second leading Husky scorer, shooting nearly 50%. Although Baylor’s guards are a big group, Stewart can shoot over or drive around them. Unfortunately for UConn, Stewart entered the game lost and tentative, and was yanked almost immediately. She played just four minutes in the half, and only seven in the game. Late in the contest, her inability to give Dolson even a few minutes of rest became a crucial factor in the loss.
And what of point guard Bria Hartley? In last season’s five-point loss to Baylor, Hartley scored 25, including five three-pointers. She has rarely approached similar production this season, and didn’t again Monday night.
The second half saw an energized Baylor take its first lead at the 14-minute mark, as Griner was much more active, and the guards were much more aware of her. In response to a flurry of Baylor buckets, Kelly Faris, absent offensively in the first half, scored seven consecutive points on three possessions in the first five minutes. Unfortunately, that was all. She did not score again.
Worse yet, UConn continued to turn the ball over, and Baylor scored on a number of fast breaks, with Sims looking like herself, and some of the Huskies looking slow. The Baylor defense was elevated, taking Connecticut deep into the shot clock repeatedly. Griner and Sims looked like all-Americans that they are, taking the game into their hands, and pulling Baylor to a six-point lead with five minutes to play. Unlike the first half, the hustle plays mostly went to Baylor.
Mosqueada-Lewis fought back with help from freshman Morgan Tuck, pulling UConn back to the lead, but the rest of the Husky offense seemed stalled. Griner, however, was in rhythm, and answered each Husky score. Although Mosqueda-Lewis continued to carry UConn, Griner would not be denied. She pushed a tiring Dolson closer to the basket and forced the issue on nearly every possession. That small change in position required quicker defensive rotations, and frequently those rotations were incomplete.
“In the second half, I think we doubled off the wrong guy,” Dolson said, “and they got too many layups off us.”
Ultimately, however, UConn lost the game on turnovers, including two in the last two minutes. While the Huskies weathered the 11 miscues in the first half (four of them travelling violations), in the second half, and particularly in the tense end-game, the turnovers yielded fast break buckets that broke UConn’s back. In a contest with 11 lead changes in the second half, poorly timed turnovers left Connecticut without time to come back.
And in the end, the game was decided by the stars. Connecticut could not control Griner for 40 minutes, as she scored 21 second half points. Sims, though held to just nine points on three of 15 shooting, took control of the offense when Baylor needed it, dished out five assists, and pressured the top of the UConn offense into turnovers and poor shots. UConn seemed tired mentally and perhaps even physically, in part because Stewart’s inability to contribute shortened the bench, forcing Dolson to play every minute of the game. Dolson battled every possession of the contest, but eventually wore down, and Griner could get a step closer to the hoop. That two-foot difference allowed her to exhibit all of her outstanding skillset and dominate the second half.
Even in the ugly light of all those key turnovers, there were some bright spots for UConn, and those two involved individual performances Dolson’s solid defense for most of the game, and her ability to hit shots from 15 feet and out secured her growing reputation as a great center. Mosqueda-Lewis’ superb all-around game, with 26 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks was a showcase of her still-growing talents.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was suitably impressed. “She’s a great player. She had a double-double at the half, and we had our best defender on her. I don’t know that Jordan Madden, who was guarding her was doing a bad job, you just sometimes have to acknowledge that players are that good.”
Mosqueda-Lewis, just a sophomore, also demonstrated that she has accepted the responsibility of playing her best in the biggest games. But for her teammates’ dumb turnovers, she might have grabbed a win for the Huskies.
Also encouraging was freshman Morgan Tuck’s fearless play, a stark contrast to Stewart’s deer-in-the-headlights futility. But Connecticut needed more. They needed stability. They needed to protect the ball. “We’re just not good enough to beat these guys yet,” Auriemma announced to the sellout crowd of 16,294, “but you guys [the crowd] were great tonight.”
But Baylor has the best center and the best point guard in the country, plus team quickness and solid defense.
Auriemma put it succinctly to the Hartford Courant on the day before the game. “They have something no one else has [Griner]. They can walk into any arena and say unless we play bad, we're not going to lose. I've been there lots of times. It's a good feeling.”
On this day, Baylor left the arena with that good feeling, and may finish the season the same way.
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