When They Needed It Most, UConn Had The Juice
10:51 AM EDT on March 30, 2021
The fun of the NCAA tournament supposedly lies in the pests. The Wright States bothering the Arkansas-es, the Krutwigs bullying the Cockburns. The amusing unlikelihood of physical advantage neutralized, and the tortoise beating the hare. I say "supposedly" because the charm of these scenarios is usually lost on me. I like torment. I like things as they should be. Give me Looney Tunes-style beatdowns. Give me the better shooters shooting, the taller players pulling down boards, the stronger players slicing through everyone else. Give me the 12 or so minutes of Monday night's Elite Eight game where it looked like Baylor had figured out UConn—like when DiJonai Carrington came barreling behind Christyn Williams to block her shot—and was going to make them pay in the paint.
And also give me the next 12 minutes, when the Huskies roared back to life after Baylor defensive standout DiDi Richards exited with an injury, and strung together a crushing 19–0 run on big buckets from stars Paige Bueckers, Williams, and Aaliyah Edwards. The much-awaited, bracket-destined early matchup between UConn and Baylor was the best kind of tournament basketball: a game of zero underdogs and only bullies; no mew mew mew, nobody believed we could make it here nonsense, just two of the best programs and best defenses in the country with players who knew exactly how good they were. "This game was tougher than a lot of the national championship games we’ve won," Geno Auriemma said afterward. It certainly looked like a title game. The Huskies' 69–67 win was enough to continue a UConn Final Four appearance streak that began when freshmen Bueckers and Edwards were six years old.
You can pretty much divide this game into Before DiDi Richards Left, which the senior point guard did with about three minutes left in the third quarter, and After DiDi Richards Left. BDRL, Baylor was in control, winning the offensive rebounding battle the Lady Bears needed to win and causing all kinds of trouble for UConn's two crucial bigs, Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who each had to sit stretches in foul trouble. In a five-second microcosm of the game, Richards was bringing the ball up fast in transition after a Baylor rebound on a UConn miss. She slipped and injured her hamstring with Baylor up nine points. Richards played a few minutes afterward, but couldn't move much, and quickly came out. So began the ADRL dark ages. Without a great defender on her, Bueckers got every shot she wanted, scoring 10 of the points in the 19–0 run. It was a test of Bueckers's mettle in the sort of close game the Huskies are rarely in and she passed. On the other end, Baylor lost its best shot creator, a huge blow to an offense that was never particularly high-octane to begin with. "The whole story of the game is DiDi Richards went down, and the whole momentum shifted," said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey in a, ah, colorful postgame press conference.
The other story of the game, if you ask Mulkey and the Baylor players, was a no-call on Baylor's last possession, when the Lady Bears had an opportunity to take a lead. Down one point after Christyn Williams missed two late-game free throws for UConn, Baylor tried running a final play through Carrington, who got blocked, at least, by Edwards and Nelson-Ododa. It was the sort of contact the refs hadn't called much all night.
"I personally don't see it as a controversial call. I've already seen the replay and one girl fouled me in my face and one girl found me on my arm, so at that point, you can't do anything else," Carrington said. Mulkey agreed in an exchange with USA Today's Lindsay Schnell during the press conference:
LS: What did you see when DiJonai drove the ball, from where you were standing?
KM: What did you see?
LS: I was surprised they didn't call a foul.
KM: Then write it like that. You don't need a quote from me. I've got still shots [holds up her phone, on which you can kind of make out a lengthy text message Mulkey has responded to with "Yes."] and video from two angles. One kid hits her in the face, and one gets her on the elbow.
The same still shots and video, of course, would also show that Mulkey drew up a boneheaded last-possession play. Other still shots and video might show her not calling a timeout at any point during UConn's 19–0 run. It was a two-point game, so we can all scrutinize the tape and find game-deciding plays and errors to dwell on. Not that Mulkey will. Later in her press conference, she seemed to arrive at a weirdly stirring nihilism: "It doesn't matter. Oh, well, we missed the call. Well, you know—it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what you write. It doesn't matter what I say. It doesn't matter what we saw. It doesn't matter what we think. Life goes on."
Life indeed goes on for Mulkey and Baylor, just not in San Antonio, where UConn will face Arizona next in the Final Four. Arizona beat Indiana in the night's all-underdog Elite Eight game, though the win was pretty much entirely thanks to hot shooting from guard Aari McDonald. For UConn, Arizona should feel like a lesser hurdle than the last round. A championship is now in sight. Baylor joins Tennessee and South Carolina on the list of high-pressure games the Huskies have won this season in close, scary, dramatic ways. What matters, though, is that they've won them all.