Could it be that consensus coach of the year Kim Mulkey’s team was too good, that it smothered teams by margins such as 25 (South Carolina, in the Sweet 16) and 32 (Iowa, in the Elite Eight) so often that it forgot how to gut out a win?
After all, the last game the Bears won by single digits was way back on March 4.
Well, as so often is the case, such fretting was for naught. The top-seeded Bears proved Friday night in a 72-67 win over No. 2 seed Oregon that they can clench their jaws and hold off a fearless, hot-shooting opponent down the stretch just as well as they crushed overmatched ones by halftime.
Mulkey, for one, wasn’t concerned.
“I think y’all wondered. I didn’t,” she said after the win. “Listen, I’m telling you, our practices are hard. . . . Every one of those freshmen, they give that group — they beat them sometimes in practice.”
Baylor (36-1) advanced to play in Sunday’s national title game against No. 1 seed Notre Dame (35-3), which rallied from nine points down late to beat No. 2 seed Connecticut, 81-76, in the second semifinal, the 50th installment of their bitter rivalry.
The Bears will play for their third crown under Mulkey, their 19th-year coach whose teams cut down the nets in 2005 and 2012. Their nation-leading winning streak sits at 28, with their lone loss in December at Stanford.
In a thrilling Final Four opener, Satou Sabally tied the score at 67 with Oregon’s 12th three-pointer, but that was the Ducks’ last basket of a remarkable season in which Coach Kelly Graves’s roster crashed through to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
“Just don’t know if we ever really got kind of our game going,” Graves said. “We saw bits and pieces of it here and there. Credit to a really good defensive team.”
Sabrina Ionescu, the electric junior who holds the NCAA record for triple-doubles, led Oregon with 18 points in perhaps her last game for the Ducks — should she choose to leave early for the WNBA draft. Sabally had 16, and Erin Boley had 14. But the trio’s 11 three-pointers were no match for what Baylor had going on under the basket. Kalani Brown led the Bears with 22 points, and Lauren Cox had 21 points and 11 rebounds. Guard Didi Richards added 15 points.
“The feeling is unreal,” Brown said. “I’m still in shock. I’m overwhelmed. I’m just happy to be a part of this team right now.”
After Sabally’s game-tying three-pointer, Baylor point guard Chloe Jackson cut through Oregon’s defense with ease for a layup, and the Bears’ defense — the nation’s most powerful, thanks to Brown and Cox — did the rest. Oregon, facing the pressure of the Bears and of the moment, tightened up and missed its final five shot attempts.
The Ducks’ three-point shooting kept them in the game in the third quarter after Baylor rattled off an 8-0 run toward the start to go up 45-40. The Bears grabbed a 56-55 lead heading into the fourth quarter on the strength of a putback from Cox.
Oregon (33-5) played freely from the start because, after all, it could revel in the role of the underdog: The Ducks arrived at their first Final Four with an 0-7 record against the other teams here, which boast a combined 15 national championships. Baylor, on the other hand, hauled with it the pressure of being the No. 1 overall seed.
The Bears started off with three turnovers in the first five minutes, and Oregon took advantage. Boley hit two three-pointers to give Oregon an 11-4 edge before Mulkey subbed in 6-foot-2 NaLyssa Smith to give the already imposing Baylor lineup even more size.
Smith wasn’t needed for long; she hit a jumper to bump the score to 11-8 less than a minute after jogging onto the court, and the Bears were rolling. They closed the first quarter with a 15-4 run, and the teams traded highlight reel-worthy plays — a powerful block by Cox here, another three from Boley there — to swap the lead until halftime.
Oregon finished the rally and gained a 34-33 edge at intermission thanks to Ionescu. With a step or two on Richards at the top of the key, she let fly for a long three, the follow-through for which left her sitting on the court, legs splayed.
She whipped around and gave Richards an ice-cold stare for just a moment before her teammates picked her up.
But in the end, Baylor had the last word.
“ ‘Perseverance’ was a big word,” Mulkey said. “We persevered. We’re playing Sunday. Y’all be here. I know you will.”