TAMPA, Fla. – Locked in a close game for the first time in weeks, Baylor never flinched.
Kalani Brown scored 22 points and Lauren Cox added 21 as the Lady Bears (36-1) held off Final Four newcomer Oregon 72-67 Friday night to reach the women’s championship game for the first time since 2012.
The two-time champions won their 28th straight game, exerting themselves on defense down the stretch. Chloe Jackson delivered a tiebreaking layup with 39 seconds left and Brown and Cox finished out the victory with free throws for the overall top-seeded team.
“The feeling is unreal,” Brown said.
Coach Kim Mulkey won national titles as a player and assistant coach at Louisiana Tech. Baylor has a chance to win its third national title with her in charge, facing top-seeded Notre Dame on Sunday night.
The 56-year-old coach, in her 19th season at Baylor, said she never questioned how her team, which has played only a handful of games decided by fewer than 10 points, would respond when they fell behind 64-61 with just more than 6 minutes remaining.
During a timeout, Mulkey said Brown – one of two senior starters – looked at teammate Juicy Landrum and told the 5-foot-8 guard the Lady Bears were going to be just fine.
“There was nothing to draw up. No magical words,” Mulkey said. “Just go play.”
All-American Sabrina Ionescu led Oregon (33-5) with 18 points but didn’t score in the fourth quarter. She missed a layup that would have given her team the lead in the final minute and the Ducks misfired on 12 of their last 13 shots.
“They played like champions today and deserve to move on,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves – formerly head coach at Gonzaga – said of Baylor.
“I’m really proud of our team, no question about it. We certainly belonged to be here,” Graves added. “We had our chances down the stretch. I just don’t know if we ever got our game going.”
Mulkey gave Ionescu a hug and talked to her for a few moments in the postgame handshake line. Ionescu shot 6 for 24, including 0 for 7 in the fourth quarter.
After Jackson’s layup, Cox made two free throws and Brown finished with a foul shot in the closing seconds.
Oregon was one of the best 3-point-shooting teams in the nation this season, but was just 12 of 32 from behind the arc and shot 36.8 percent overall.
Ionescu shrugged off a scoreless first quarter in which she attempted just two shots. She scored 12 in the second quarter and gave Oregon a 34-33 halftime lead after making a long 3 while being bumped to the ground by Baylor’s DiDi Richards.
Ionescu sat on the floor and stared at Richards, whom she thought had fouled her on a shot she missed moments before, before climbing to her feet to make a free throw to finish a four-point play to put Oregon up at the break.
Oregon was in the Final Four for the first time, finally breaking through under Graves after losing in the Elite Eight the past two years.
Graves said the Ducks don’t take solace in playing the top overall seed down to the wire.
“No, it still hurts,” the coach said. “But we’ll have a chance to look back on this and realize that this was an incredible season. We’ve got a lot coming back. This is a team that’s going to be loaded. … We’ve proven we’re a program on the rise.”
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