With a sold-out crowd of 10,284 on their feet waving white rally towels in the air, the celebration was on. Sure, there were plenty of big plays by the Lady Bears throughout the 40 minutes of regulation that resulted in plenty of chest bumps, fist pumps and flat-out screams of joy as eighth-ranked Baylor continued to exert its will. But what shouts the Lady Bears let out when the game clock hit zero.
Against the No. 1 team in the nation that boasted a 126-game regular season win streak, the Lady Bears put together the total team effort to take down mighty Connecticut, 68-57, inside the Ferrell Center.
“We’re all chasing (UConn head coach) Geno (Auriemma),” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “I want people to be proud of this program. I want them to be proud of this program because we win on a consistent basis.“
Coming into Thursday night’s national televised contest, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma mentioned how concerned he was with defending Baylor’s 6-foot-7 center Kalani Brown. And the Lady Bear senior was a problem for the Huskies.
Brown finished with 22 points off 10-of-16 shooting from the floor in addition to pulling down 17 rebounds. She scored 12 of those points in the second half as the Lady Bears focused more on getting the ball inside the paint.
“Coach got on us, and me and Lauren (Cox) took it upon ourselves to respond (after the Stanford game),” Brown said. “Defensively, I think did a great job. Lauren played well guarding Katie Lou (Samuelson) and Napheesa (Collier). It’s not normal for us to both have a bad game (at Stanford) like that. Since we laid an egg we wanted to redeem ourselves. That’s what we did.”
Connecticut tied things up at 32 with 8:42 left in the third quarter, and the duo of Brown and Cox took over from there to give the home team a seven-point lead. The Lady Bears built that advantage to 10 points, but back-to-back 3-pointers by UConn freshman Christyn Williams cut Baylor’s lead to four heading into the final quarter of the night.
“The energy we had was crazy today,” Brown said. “If we play every game like that, there’s no telling where we’ll end up. Our size affected their shots and their penetrating. Everyone had a job.”
While Brown continued to get buckets for the Lady Bears in the fourth quarter, Chloe Jackson finally caught fire. The senior guard, whom Mulkey dubbed one of, if not the best midrange shooter in the country, got off to a cold start, missing the shots she usually makes.
But in the do or die fourth quarter, Jackson was nothing but net. The point guard, after going 2-for-11 through the first three quarters, went 4-for-8 from the floor in the fourth to score nine of her 11 points in the final quarter.
“Coach Mulkey kept telling me to shoot the ball,” Jackson said. “My coaches and teammates have seen me make those shots in practice. They’re not shots I can’t make. They had the faith and the trust in me to keep shooting. They gave me all the confidence I needed.”
In addition to hitting the big shots late that kept Baylor’s lead at six points or higher, Jackson also finished the night with eight assists and zero turnovers in addition to four steals.
While it was Jackson who helped Baylor pull away, it was junior Juicy Landrum that helped the Lady Bears jump out to an early lead. Left wide open from about a yard behind the perimeter, Landrum never hesitated as she put up a triple and drained it.
The next time she touched the ball on the offensive end of the floor, it was the same story. Her quick six points from the great beyond forced UConn to face guard her for the rest of the first half, meaning her defender watched only her the entire time.
Landrum finished the game with 11 points off a 3-for-4 night from the perimeter.
“UConn came out with a box and one defense,” Mulkey said. “I watched him do it against the Robertson kid at Oklahoma. Juicy hit some big 3s. She was looking to shoot it. What a difference it made to be a junior. She wouldn’t look to shoot those shots her freshman year. ... Juicy has taken it upon herself to score the basketball out here.”
Freshman NaLyssa Smith was the final Lady Bear to put up double figures. The forward was all grit on the offensive glass as she pulled down four of Baylor’s 13 total offensive rebounds that led to 14 second chance points for the Lady Bears. Smith, meanwhile, finished with 12 points off a 6-for-9 shooting night.
“NaLyssa is one of the finest freshmen in the country,” Mulkey said. “NaLyssa reminds me of when Cox came into the program. Knowing Cox and Kalani are here, she knew she was good enough to get into that rotation. What a joy she is to coach.”
While Baylor finished shooting 43.5 percent from the floor, the Lady Bear defense held the Huskies to 29.4 percent shooting on the night.
While senior Napheesa Collier finished near her average of 18.6 points with 16 points on the night, Katie Lou Samuelson was held to 12 points off 4-of-16 shooting. The 6-foot-3 senior usually averages around 20.1 points.
“Their two seniors, Collier and Samuelson, (are) their bread and butter,” Mulkey said. “Guard them. Don’t give up transition layups. They’re a great shooting team.”
It was the defense of Baylor sophomore DiDi Richards that kept her off balance offensively. In the first half, Richards got in foul trouble with around seven minutes in the second quarter. In the first half alone, when Richards was guarding her, Samuelson was 0-for-6 for two points. When Richards was on the bench, Samuelson was 3-for-4 for seven points.
And when it wasn’t Richards playing great one on one defense against Samuelson, the long arm of the law, better known as the long arm of Baylor junior Lauren Cox, was there to alter shots. The 6-foot-4 forward finished with five blocks on the night.
“Let me give kudos to DiDi Richards,” Mulkey said. “That kid defended Samuelson with every ounce of energy that she had. DiDi has the length, she’s active. She made Samuelson work for every shot. She didn’t go for shot fakes. ... We matched up DiDi and Cox on their best players. That was important for us.”
Now, the Lady Bears have a quick turnaround as Big 12 play begins Sunday with a noon tip at Texas Tech.
“The most important thing on my mind right now ... is Lubbock, Tex. and Texas Tech,” Mulkey said. “We’re going to enjoy this, and we should, but we can’t over-emphasize it. We can’t. Our league is tough. It’s physical. We play each other twice.”