It’s the regional finals. The other team is wearing uniforms that Tony the Tiger would be proud of. And punching the ticket to the state finals is on the line.
But No. 41 is killing Hickory. So in a timeout, coach Norman Dale tells Buddy to stick with 41, to think of him like chewing gum. What kind is he?
A little later, after Buddy fouls out and takes his place on the bench, Dale looks down toward Buddy with a quizzical look on his face and shrugs his shoulders.
Buddy, leaning forward with a towel between his hands, looks back at his coach and says, “It was Dentyne.”
Yes, I’m talking about the film Hoosiers. But DiDi Richards definitely knows what kind of gum Connecticut’s Katie Lou Samuelson is. (Hat tip to BearsIllustrated.com for that tweet. It was the best one of the night).
And Richards was on Samuelson like white on rice, leaving her limited opportunity to even put a shot up. When encountered by screens, Richards fought her way past to stay right on Samuelson’s hip. That harrassed the Huskies’ star, because if Richards had gone under the screen, Samuelson would have had enough daylight to pull the trigger.
Let’s continue to put Richards’ play in perspective. The 6-foot-3 Samuelson scored 20-plus in each of UConn’s last four games. But the Associated Press Preseason All-American was held to her lowest scoring production of the season (12 points) thanks to the defense of 6-1 Richards.
“I think it felt like everyone was kind of stagnant out there,” Samuelson said. “We were kind of all looking at each other, (which) led to making difficult shots. We weren’t hitting those difficult shots. Sometimes we do, but we don’t always. When we are not getting shots within our offense, we shoot worse than we normally get.”
Yes, it was the defense of Baylor that sealed Thursday’s victory for the Lady Bears. Against a UConn team that spreads things out in the halfcourt set, the Lady Bears managed to communicate beautifully.
Here’s what ESPN’s Kara Lawson tweeted out Friday morning after calling the game Thursday night: “Don’t get it twisted, it wasn’t just Baylor’s size & length that gave UConn problems. It was their quickness & intelligence. Guards couldn’t manufacture clean looks. One of the best defensive performances I’ve seen in a long time.”
UConn finished shooting 29.4 percent from the field, its worst mark in the past 20 seasons. Of their 20 made baskets (out of 68 total attempts), the Huskies hit 11 3-pointers. Do the math. UConn only went 9-for-36 from inside the arc.
The Huskies’ 57 points accounted for their lowest output of the season and lowest since finishing with 55 in a win over Central Florida last February.
“What we weren’t OK with was how hard it was for us to get the shots that we wanted,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “When we did get the shots that we wanted, we didn’t make any of them, and we knew that we were going to have to trade in 3’s for 2’s and that was the plan going in and it didn’t work.
“We’re not going to win a game inside the lane against these guys. Never have since Tina Charles, so if you can’t match them in there, you’re not going to beat them in there. We have to figure out a different way to beat them. We thought we could, and we didn’t.“
While the defense was key, the sheer height advantage of Baylor was also an immense factor in this game.
Connecticut’s true forward, Napheesa Collier, is 6-2, while the swing players Megan Walker and Samuelson are 6-1 and 6-3, respectively. The Huskies do have a 6-4 player in freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododo, but she played only four minutes in Thursday’s contest (she averages 11.3 minutes per game in UConn’s normal six-player rotation).
Match that up against 6-4 Lauren Cox and 6-7 Kalani Brown (who is tied for the tallest current player in women’s college basketball). Add to that mix the 6-2 NaLyssa Smith and the 6-1 Richards.
“We knew going in that their size was going to be difficult for us because they are so much bigger,” Collier said. “Our game plan was to try to keep them out of the post as much as we can and stop them from getting second rebounds. I don’t think we did a good job of executing that tonight. I think that is what hurt us.”
Baylor finished the night with eight blocks — five from Cox, and one each from Richards, Landrum and Smith.
There was also an air of confidence about Baylor that was evident when the Lady Bears took the court, but seemed to explode when Juicy Landrum nailed her first triple of the game from somewhere near the parking lot. It definitely rubbed off on Brown, who went 4-for-4 from the top of the key.
“They made shots today that I haven’t seen them make so far this year,” Auriemma said. “One of the things that we talked to our team about is that we’re not going to be able to take everything that they do away. It’s not like we’re going to take everything because you got to let them have something. We were willing to give up some shots in order to not give up other ones.“
While Brown fired away from outside the paint, Cox struggled from deep, an area she found success with earlier in the week against UT-Rio Grande Valley. Despite her struggles, Cox worked it back inside in the second half and had a monster third quarter to lead Baylor in that frame with nine points off 3-of-5 shooting.
And then there was Chloe Jackson, the mid-range machine. Shots she usually makes from right inside the 3-point line refused to get in the hoop. Her teammates and Mulkey continued to tell her to keep shooting it. After she got a bit of a breather in the fourth quarter, marking her first trip to the bench of the game, Jackson came back out and was the answer the Lady Bears needed.
Jackson made the big-time shots when Baylor needed them most. After a 3-pointer by Crystal Dangerfield cut Baylor’s lead to six, and seemed to foreshadow what happened in the third quarter when Baylor’s 10-point lead was quickly cut to four thanks to back-to-back triples by Christyn Williams, she answered Dangerfield’s bucket and then turned around to get the steal on the other end and finish with the transition layup.
And it was that mental toughness of Baylor exemplified late by Jackson that sealed the Lady Bears’ first victory over a No. 1 team.
The Huskies led for only 15 seconds in the game. The game was tied for three minutes. It was all Baylor the rest of the way.
Every time it seemed UConn put up a big shot, the Lady Bears were there with the answer.
And in the fourth quarter, the Huskies never got closer than six points.
That’s making the shots in big-time moments. But it’s also impeccable defense, shutting down a previously undefeated team that hadn’t scored under 65 points until coming to Waco.