With one-minute remaining in a tied game, Sabrina Ionescu had the ball at the top of three-point line. As she drove right towards the hoop looking to give Oregon the lead, she was met by Baylor’s 6-foot-7 center Kalani Brown.
Ionescu missed the layup, Brown grabbed the rebound and the Bears converted on the other end, scoring the game’s final five points as the Oregon’s season came to an end with a 72-67 to loss to Baylor in the Final Four.
“We tried our best, we worked hard — in the end, they made the plays and we didn’t,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “I’m really proud of our team, no question about it. We certainly belonged to be here, we had our chances down the stretch.”
After securing the program’s first trip to a Final Four, the Ducks came within one minute of continuing its magical run. But in the end, Baylor’s size and experience proved to be the difference maker as Oregon struggled down the stretch.
Maite Cazorla’s three-pointer with 6:13 to go gave the Ducks a 64-61 lead and prompted a timeout by Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey. Whatever was said in the timeout worked as the Bears ended the game on an 11-3 run, limiting Oregon to 1-of-13 shooting from the floor over the final six minutes.
“What we did is we left Juicy (Landrum) on Sabrina and let DiDi (Richards) go get somebody else. It moved (Lauren) Cox over to (Erin) Boley some… she’s so good at helping,” Mulkey said.
The game was a classic of old school vs. new school styles of play.
With Oregon, you found a team that liked to run-and-gun, play the pick-and-roll and launch three-pointers at a successful rate. Likewise, Baylor stuck to what it does best, winning the rebounding and points-in-the-paint battles by relying on Brown and 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox to dominate down low.
Both teams were successful in what they did as the Ducks knocked down 12 three-pointers and forced 13 turnovers while the Bears had a +5-advantage rebounding and outscored Oregon 48-20 in the paint.
“You know, if you had told me that we would have only lost the rebound battle by five, held them to 72, I’d like my chances,” Graves said. “I thought we did a lot of good things defensively but they (Brown and Cox) were the ones that killed us. We got killed in points in the paint. That normally doesn’t happen.”
The Ducks jumped all over Baylor in the beginning, leading 11-4 through the first five minutes as Boley knocked down two three-pointers in the early going. But the bears settled in, outscoring Oregon 15-4 the rest of the quarter as Brown and Cox got going down low.
Ionescu, who was held scoreless in the first quarter, came out firing in the second by scoring five of Oregon’s first seven points to give the Ducks a 22-21 lead two minutes in.
A layup by Cox gave the Bears a 31-27, but Oregon responded with a 7-2 run to end the half. First Boley knocked down a three-pointer and then Ionescu ended it with a four-point play. After she pulled up from the top of the key and drilled the three-pointer following Richards’ foul, Ionescu sat on the ground and gave Richards a long stare down before hitting the free throw to give the Ducks a 34-33 lead at the break.
“We were put in positions we haven’t been put before. But I think this is just going to make us more hungry,” Ionescu said. “We got to this stage that our program has never got to… I think learning through this game and learning through the previous years, it’s just going to get us ready to want to come back.”
Much like Oregon did in the first quarter, Baylor came out firing in the third quarter to take a 47-42 lead five minutes in. But Satou Sabally got going for the Ducks, scoring five straight points to ignite a 13-5 Oregon run that gave the Ducks a 55-52 lead with a minute remaining in the quarter.
The Ducks then missed their next two three-pointers while Brown and Cox made layups for Baylor to give the Bears a one-point lead heading into the final frame and setting the stage for the tight ending.
“Those kids in that locker room get to play for a championship,” Mulkey said. “‘Perseverance’ is a big word. We persevered. We’re playing Sunday.”
Ionescu finished the game with 18 points, six assists and four rebounds but shot just 6-of-24 from the floor and 4-of-11 from deep. Sabally added 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting while Boley finished with 14 points on 4-of-12 from beyond the arc.
Ruthy Hebard struggled against the height and physicality of Baylor, but still managed to grab nine rebounds and add three steals, despite being held to a season-low four points.
As a team, Oregon struggled from the floor by shooting 36.8-percent (25-for-68) from the floor and 37.5-percent (12-for-32) from three-point territory. While the Ducks struggled in the paint, they had multiple good looks from beyond the arc but struggled to make them.
“I don’t think we were too reliant (from beyond the arc). Those are shots we usually make, they were good looks,” Ionescu said. “I don’t think we really forced too many threes up. We didn’t hit them tonight, but we’re going to learn from it.”
“That’s a very good basketball team… they’re very difficult to defend,” Mulkey said of Oregon. “I thought if we held them below 39.9 is what we want to hold people to from the field. I looked, for the game, I think they shot 36.8 — you’re going to win a lot of basketball games if you do that.”
Cox finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks while Brown added 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting for Baylor. Richards chipped in 15 points while Landrum, who played great defense on Ionescu, finished six points, nine rebounds and two steals.