WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Baylor beats South Carolina, returns to Elite 8
By Joedy McCreary
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Kim Mulkey has led Baylor to two national titles, so she knows the traits a contender ought to have.
“We’re on a roll, and that’s what it takes in the playoffs,” Mulkey said. “You need to get on a roll, you need to stay healthy and have a little bit of luck.”
Her Bears are still rolling through the bracket. No luck needed.
Baylor reached the Elite Eight for the fifth time in six years with another dominant performance, leading by as many as 30 points in a 93-68 victory over South Carolina on Saturday in the Greensboro Regional semifinals.
Didi Richards scored a career-high 25 points, and two key parts of the frontcourt — Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox — each had double-doubles for the No. 1 overall seed in the women’s NCAA Tournament. Cox had 17 points and 14 rebounds while Brown had 18 points and 10 boards.
“I was scoring, but I mean, I was also passing and able to find my teammates,” Brown said. “And when everybody’s scoring, I’m happy. If I can take a quiet 18 and 10, that’s fine.”
The Bears shot 52 percent to win their 26th straight game and blow out South Carolina for the second time this season.
Juicy Landrum and Chloe Jackson each finished with 12 points for the Bears (34-1). They will play second-seeded Iowa (29-6) on Monday night with the winner advancing to the Final Four.
“We’re just happy to get to the Elite Eight at least, and make it to the Final Four eventually,” Richards said.
Behind the elite front line of the 6-foot-4 Cox and the 6-7 Brown, the Bears dominated both the lane and the glass. Baylor built a 54-30 rebounding advantage, held the Gamecocks to two second-chance points and outscored them by 30 in the paint.
Te’a Cooper scored 17 points and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan added 16 for the fourth-seeded Gamecocks (23-10).
They tried to make things interesting, pulling to 64-48 on Bianca Cuevas-Moore’s free throw with 2:31 left in the third quarter. Brown hit a putback and Richards followed with consecutive layups in transition to push Baylor’s lead back into the 20s.
South Carolina: Deep tournament runs have been the norm under coach Dawn Staley. The Gamecocks won the national title in 2017 and advanced to the Final Four in 2015, the last time Greensboro hosted a regional. While this young team of Gamecocks briefly clawed back into the game, they ultimately were no match for the bigger Bears — who also beat them 94-69 on Dec. 2 in Columbia.
“This was their first time (playing this deep in the tournament) and to ask them to perform at a high level against a national championship-contender team was a bit much,” Staley said. “We didn’t want to mention that, but when you actually have to decompress and look at it, it’s hard for them to have to be able to do that at this level.”
Baylor: Nobody’s been able to really threaten the Bears through three games of this tournament. Baylor won its first two games by an average of 48 points, and then used its front line to overwhelm the Gamecocks early and turn back their third-quarter attempt to claw back in it.
Richards had only reached double figures once in her previous 12 games. She matched her previous best of 15 by halftime, and then scored 10 more points in the third quarter. She made 11 field goals, four more than her previous high set against Iowa State on Jan. 23. Many of her buckets came on backdoor cuts after the Gamecocks left her to double-team her bigger teammates. As a result, Cox and Brown combined for nine assists.
“That’s something that’s going to happen if they continue to double-team our posts,” Richards said. “I’m just thankful they’re able to find me backside.”
Baylor made more layups (24) than South Carolina even attempted (18), and 42 of the Bears’ 71 shots were layups. … Baylor also had 25 fast-break points to South Carolina’s nine, after Staley had said she hoped to counter the Bears’ superior size with speed.
“We’re not just a bunch of slugs running the floor with two big girls,” Mulkey quipped. … This was the third time the Gamecocks were minus-24 or worse on the boards. The other two teams to do that to South Carolina were Maryland and Mississippi State. …
No South Carolina player finished with a positive plus-minus rating.
Baylor faces Iowa in the Greensboro Regional final on Monday night.