Post players must come up big for Bears

UConn won its biggest test to date this season. And while Baylor didn’t, it doesn’t really take away any of the anticipation from their matchup in Waco, Texas, on Thursday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).

We could see both teams in Tampa, Florida, at season’s end. We’ve come to expect UConn at the Final Four. Baylor, all things considered, is past due for a trip back.

The Huskies (11-0) are ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, ascending to the top spot after their 89-71 victory at Notre Dame on Dec. 2. Baylor (9-1) is No. 8, having fallen from the No. 3 spot following the Lady Bears’ 68-63 loss at Stanford on Dec. 15.

Baylor didn’t play again after that defeat until Monday, when the Lady Bears routed UT Rio Grande Valley 98-37 with seven players scoring in double figures. That doesn’t do a lot to prepare Baylor for the Huskies, except add in some good vibes.

But Baylor hopes it learned from the Stanford loss, in which post players Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox were held to a combined seven points on 3-of-11 shooting. They’ll have to play much more like their usual selves for the Lady Bears to try to upset the Huskies.

UConn is No. 1 in defensive rating (68.3), according to Her Hoop Stats, and Baylor is not the most diverse of offenses. The Lady Bears get 70.1 percent of their scoring from 2-point range, 13.7 from behind the arc, and 16.2 from the foul line. The Huskies’ numbers are 57.9, 27.8 and 14.3.

In short, UConn is very good at defending what other teams do best, and also at stretching other teams’ defenses until they break down. It’s the same gold-standard formula that has had UConn in the Final Four for 11 years in a row.

Baylor, however, hasn’t made it that far since 2012, when it went 40-0 and won the NCAA title. In fact, Baylor’s struggle to get back to the Final Four highlights all the more just how remarkable UConn’s streak is.

Both teams have been dominant in their respective conferences for a long time. UConn has never lost a game in the American Athletic Conference since the league was formed for the 2013-14 season. And Notre Dame was the Huskies’ only major challenge for years in Big East play before that.

Baylor has won or tied for the Big 12 regular-season title eight years in a row, and has claimed seven of the past eight league tournament titles. Baylor’s Big 12 record since the 2010-11 season: 135-7. Baylor’s alleged rival, Texas, is 1-18 versus the Lady Bears during that stretch.

But the NCAA tournament has not gone Baylor’s way the past six years since the perfect season. The Lady Bears lost in the Sweet 16 to Louisville in 2013, followed by Elite Eight losses in 2014 and ’15 (both to Notre Dame), ’16 (Oregon State) and ’17 (Mississippi State) and the Sweet 16 last year (Oregon State).

UConn leads the series 4-2; the last meeting was a 72-61 Huskies victory in Storrs, Connecticut, on Nov. 17, 2016. The teams have split their games in Waco, with the Baylor winning in December 2011 and the Huskies winning in January 2014.

Brown (14.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG) and Cox (11.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG) are the veterans leading the way for Baylor. The Lady Bears expected to have point guard Alexis Morris back after she played so well at the end of her freshman season last year. But she was dismissed from the team before the season started. Transfer Chloe Jackson, who played previously at LSU and NC State, has filled in the gap, averaging 11.4 points and 6.2 assists.

Napheesa Collier is averaging a double-double (18.6 PPG, 10.5 RPG) for UConn, and fellow senior Katie Lou Samuelson is at 20.1 PPG and 7.8 RPG.

Then there’s the freshman showcase: UConn guard Christyn Williams (13.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith (12.0, 7.1). Williams was No. 1 in the espnW HoopGurlz recruiting rankings for 2018, and Smith was No. 13.

This will be Baylor’s last nonconference game; the Lady Bears start Big 12 play Sunday at Texas Tech. UConn still has two games out of the American: Jan. 31 at Louisville, and Feb. 11 versus South Carolina in Hartford, Connecticut.

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