When needed most, Lady Bears defense limited Oregon
Sabrina Ionescu entered Oregon's matchup with Baylor as a career 43% shooter from the 3-point line, so if she found that hot hand late, it might've equaled a semifinal exit for the Lady Bears, who ended up defeating the Ducks 72-67.
Not including a lengthy attempt at a buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter, Ionescu sunk four of her first seven attempts from distance. Had it not been for back-to-back layups by Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, Baylor would've been trailing going into the fourth.
"How can you do a better job defensively on the 3-point line," ESPN's Holly Rowe asked Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey between the third and fourth quarters.
"Haha! Do you know how hard that is to guard? Good lord, Holly, we're fighting, clawing," Mulkey jokingly responded. "That's hard to guard, okay? We're doing the best we can."
Inside the arc, the Ducks leading scorer was just 2-for-13 due to the blanketing defense from DiDi Richards in the first 30+ minutes. But when Richards picked up her fourth foul early in the fourth quarter, it was Juicy Landrum defending Ionescu one-on-one in the final 9:29.
Landrum played all but one minute Friday night, attempting two of Baylor's three unsuccessful 3-pointers. The La Vega graduate also had four turnovers, so it wasn't her best effort protecting the basketball, either.
"Coach Mulkey was riding me very hard because of my turnovers,"
. "But she then looked at me and said, 'You know I love you, right?'"
"When DiDi got in foul trouble, I had to make a decision there," Mulkey said. "I actually brought her back with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter. That's probably not smart, had she fouled out. But, hey, you're playing in the Final Four. There is no tomorrow."
With the Lady Bears leading 65-64, Ionescu drove into the paint for a layup attempt, but was blocked by Landrum, who also stepped up with rebounds in critical moments.
However, a little luck was needed, too.
The Ducks' offensive gameplan includes the constant use of screens. If they don't work initially, they reset and try again.
Ionescu, who was in the midst of six-straight misses, was left open on the left wing after a screen by Ruthy Hebard, who cut to the basket and was followed by both Landrum and Brown. Ionescu's uncontested 3-pointer with Baylor leading 67-64 was off the mark.
Satou Sabally pulled down an offensive rebound to reset the possession and actually hit the game-tying 3-pointer seconds later, but that was the only field goal Oregon converted in the final 6:12.
Tied at 67 with less than a minute remaining, Ionescu used a screen from Hebard to create minimal separation from Landrum, who was able to get back in position to force an off-balance layup attempt.
After that miss, Baylor senior Chloe Jackson relied on a screen from Brown to convert the eventual game-winning layup.
"I didn't have the best performance, but defensively in that fourth quarter, DiDi and I kind of stuck it on her," Landrum said. "Having her 0-for-7 from the floor in the fourth quarter was big. She's really tough to guard off the screens, but I did the best I could to try to shut it down."
Oregon knocked down 12 3-pointers and attempted 32. While that 37.5% rate would be one of the better marks compared to other teams, it was well-below their pre-Final Four average (41.7%).
"32 three-pointers is too many for us," Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. "We're more comfortable in the 25 to 28 range. I just thought we shot a few too many, a couple not so good ones. But that's what they were giving us (Friday). If we have a normal shooting night, those threes for twos are more successful.
"But I don't think that's where the game was lost. I thought we had a couple of defensive breakdowns late. Even though the boards were relatively within reason, they made some key offensive rebounds late."
Baylor (36-1) has won 28 straight games and will play Notre Dame in the championship game Sunday at 5 p.m. The Lady Bears are 4-2 all-time against the Fighting Irish, but both losses came in the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons (2013-14 and 2014-15).