SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said at her pre-game conference that she hoped her team would play better defense against Kentucky than they had during their wild and whacky quadruple-overtime 133-130 loss on December 6.
In Saturday afternoon's rematch, it looked more like “defense when it mattered most” that won the day. Still, despite the inconsistent defensive effort and having had only one starter return from last season, Baylor (32-4) is headed to Monday night's Elite Eight match-up against undefeated No. 1-seed Notre Dame. Kentucky is finished at 26-9.
Whether it was the defense, spotty as it might have been; Kentucky's poor shooting (especially in the first half when the Wildcats connected on just 25 percent of their shots from the field and failed to hit even one of their eight attempts from long range); or a determined rebounding effort by Baylor, who controlled the glass to the tune of 47-39, that proved the difference on Monday night is hard to say. Most likely it was a combination of all of the foregoing, along with an early timeout taken by Mulkey.
Though down only 5-4 at the 17:42 mark of the first half, Mulkey sensed the time was right to call an unusual timeout.
“Imani Wright was in the game and she turned the ball over,” Mulkey said. “I wanted to challenge a freshman. 'Don’t you come out here with a deer in the headlight look and throw that ball away. Where did that come from?' Sometimes you just want to change the flow of a game. I felt like at the time I could get on them and challenge them and let them know that they needed to play as fired up as I was coaching.”
The strategy worked wonders. The next four minutes and change were all Baylor. The ensuing 16-2 run set the score at 20-7 and also saw Lady Bear star Odyssey Sims recover from an 0-6 start and take the first half over. She would eventually score 18 first-half points while Baylor built a 27-19 edge in rebounding.
Meanwhile the Wildcats were held to a 9-36 first-half effort from the field.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell decided to let his team work it out on the floor during that early Baylor run. Mitchell said he didn’t think his team was playing that badly during the run, at least not badly enough to call a timeout.
“I didn’t think it was necessarily the plays that Baylor was making," said Mitchell. "I did not feel it [the game] was out of reach at the time. Not much I did today was right so it probably could have helped if I had done something there. At the time I was feeling that we should settle in and play for a little bit.”
His team would indeed settle in, but by the time they did, Baylor had created a deficit from which his team would never recover.
The fiery Sims has a tendency to hand back whatever she receives on the court, and that resulted in her picking up three fouls in the first half. Still, Baylor had room to breathe with a 49-32 halftime edge.
“I told her (Sims) at halftime not to make her fourth foul in the first ten minutes of the second half,” Mulkey said. “I said ‘You are an All-American, figure it out.”
Evidently, the All American did just that -- Sims finished the game without picking up another personal.
Kentucky played better in the second half, but overcoming a 17-point advantage against the 5th-ranked team (AP) in the country is a daunting task. Throw in the fact that they never got the 3-point game going (3-12 for the game). So, with Sims playing smarter and distributing the ball more frequently, Baylor was able to weather a couple of minor runs by the Wildcats and cruise in for the win.
DeNesha Stallworth led the 'Cats with 19 points and eight-boards, despite playing with four personals; Bria Goss added 13 points before fouling out of the game; and Linnae Harper came off the pench to tack on 14 points in just 17 minutes on the floor.
Sims led Baylor with a game-high 25 points, including her 1,000th point of the season, icing the cake with seven assists. Niya Johnson contributed a double-double of 11 points and a game-high 11 assists for the Lady Bears. Nina Davis and Khadijah Cave, both freshmen, added 20 and 18 points, respectively, and both fell just short of double-doubles, with Davis pulling down eight rebounds and Cave nine.
Baylor held a 47-39 edge in rebounds for the night as well as a 28-12 advantage in the paint.
“You have to remember guys, there’s no substitute for a fifth-year senior. Those two post players for Kentucky are fifth-year seniors. We had a 5-11 post player [Nina Davis] that’s a freshman and a 6-3 freshman post [Khadijiah Cave], so how can I not be proud of how much they have improved?”
Still, there were times when Kentucky was able to drive the lane repeatedly, but was unable to finish. There were other times when the Wildcats had open shots and just were not able to drain them.
While on Saturday, Baylor managed to survive such lapses, even against a high-quality team like Kentucky, it's unlikely that a similarly inconsistent defensive effort will prove successful against a Final Four team. If the Bears hope to get back to the national championship game, Mulkey and her squad have their work cut out for her between now and Monday night's Elite Eight meeting with undefeated Notre Dame.
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