WACO, Texas — Baylor coach Kim Mulkey claimed her mind was already focused on her team’s next game on Sunday. But nobody else was thinking about that. Baylor had just ended another of No. 1 UConn’s crazy-good streaks, and that was the focus of the women’s basketball world.
UConn survived one treacherous trip into Big 12 territory earlier this season. But Thursday, the Huskies lost their first regular-season game in more than four years. And it was at the hands of Baylor, the beast of Big 12 women’s basketball.
The No. 8 Lady Bears prevailed 68-57 over No. 1 UConn in front a rocking full house of 10,284 fans at Ferrell Center. It was the first time Baylor has defeated the nation’s top-ranked team, having gone 0-14 previously counting the NCAA and Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women eras.
“Listen, we’re all chasing Geno, let’s be real,” Mulkey said of Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, who has won 11 NCAA titles. “I didn’t know it was a first. I don’t coach like that. I just want to win the next game.”
Winning this one was pretty enormous.
UConn fell in overtime in each of the past two national semifinals, but the Huskies had not lost a regular-season game since falling in overtime to Stanford on Nov. 17, 2014, a string of 126 victories in a row. UConn’s last double-digit loss was Feb. 27, 2012, against Notre Dame (lost by 13).
The Huskies’ streak of regular-season victories in regulation was even longer: 163 in a row, with the last loss to Baylor on Feb. 18, 2013. That Lady Bears team was the defending national champion at the time, and it featured then-senior Brittney Griner.
This season’s Baylor squad has another strong center in Kalani Brown, and the reigning Big 12 player of the year controlled the inside. Brown finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds Thursday, her best game of this season. She was 11-of-17 from the field.
The Lady Bears also got a big game off the bench from freshman sensation NaLyssa Smith, who had 12 points and six rebounds, going 6-of-9 from the field.
Point guard Chloe Jackson, a graduate student playing her first and only season at Baylor, had 13 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. Guard Juicy Landrum had 11 points, including all three of the Lady Bears’ 3-pointers.
The Lady Bears’ length on defense with the 6-foot-7 Brown, 6-4 Lauren Cox and 6-2 Smith made things difficult for the Huskies, as did the perimeter defense led by DiDi Richards, who spent a lot of time guarding UConn leading scorer Katie Lou Samuelson.
The Huskies shot 29.4 percent from the field (20-of-68), their worst mark in the past 20 seasons. That included 11 3-pointers; UConn made just 9 of 36 attempts from 2-point range. This was UConn’s lowest point total of the season, and its lowest since scoring 55 in a victory over Central Florida on Feb. 7, 2018.
What went wrong offensively for UConn? Everything. Baylor’s size made it hard to go into the paint. The Huskies weren’t able to score in transition, partly because they didn’t get that many opportunities; Baylor had only five turnovers. And then UConn didn’t hit some of the jump shots that we’re used to seeing.
“It felt like our offense was kind of stagnant, and we were all just looking at each other,” said Samuelson, who had 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting. “So that led to taking difficult shots, which we weren’t hitting. That’s on us to figure it out, and we should have figured it out earlier and played with a little more urgency.”
Auriemma added: “I don’t remember us struggling so much before on the offensive end to get things going.”
UConn trailed much of the game in its visit to Oklahoma on Dec. 19, but it then took control in the final five minutes against a young Sooners squad and won 72-63. This is a Baylor team with a lot more experience, and the Lady Bears did not let this one get away.
Cox, who had been scoreless in the first half, got going offensively in the third quarter. That helped open things up for Brown. The senior was able to make her presence felt, as she used both her size inside and her jump shot at the free throw line to take control. Baylor led the way on the boards 46-43 and shot 43.5 percent for the game (30-of-69).
Baylor’s only loss this season was 68-63 on Dec. 15 at Stanford, and Brown and Cox combined for just seven points in that game. Did that defeat impact how Baylor’s inside duo played Thursday?
“It did. Coach made sure of that,” Brown said. “She got on us. Me and Lauren took it upon ourselves to respond. That’s what we did tonight. It’s not really normal for us both to have a bad game like that. We just wanted to redeem ourselves.
“The energy we had today was crazy. If we play every game like that, there’s no telling where we may end up. We kept the energy even through the momentum swings. We just kept at it.”
Mulkey had said before the game that she wasn’t worried about the NCAA tournament implications of this game. But with a victory in hand over the top-ranked Huskies, the Lady Bears now go into the Big 12 season, where they have dominated, with great momentum. Baylor has won or tied for the Big 12 regular-season title eight years in a row, and it has claimed seven of the past eight league tournament titles.
But the Lady Bears have fallen short of the Final Four since winning it all in 2012. Thursday’s win came only in early January, but it definitely could help come March.
However, Mulkey said it was more about meeting a general standard she wants all the time.
“We may never get to another Final Four. Do you know how hard that is?” Mulkey said. “I said that when we went the first time. But we’re still there; we’re still relevant. I just want to put a team on the floor that Baylor people will be proud of.”