MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)—Baylor’s freshmen have learned the same important lesson all young players are taught in the NCAA women’s tournament: defense is key.
“In high school if you’re the best player on the team, you don’t have to play defense, just offense,” freshman guard Shanay Washington said. “Coming here, with Melissa (Jones) and Lindsay (Palmer) driving past you in practice every day, you feel kind of bad. You have to focus on defense.”
Two of the best defenses in the country will be on display when the fourth-seeded Lady Bears meet No. 2 seed Duke in the Memphis regional final on Monday with a trip to San Antonio for the Final Four in on the line.
Duke (30-5) hopes to use its stifling defense to expose Baylor’s youth. The Blue Devils, playing in the program’s eighth regional semifinals, have limited their opponents in the NCAA tournament to an average 49 points, 35 percent shooting while forcing 21.3 turnovers.
“At this time a lot of unexpected things happen. Freshmen become seniors, seniors can’t become freshmen,” Duke senior forward Joy Cheek said. “Hopefully to our advantage we as upperclassmen will play like upperclassmen.”
Baylor’s own defensive force, 6-foot-8 freshman Brittany Griner played more like a senior in the Lady Bears’ 77-62 regional semifinal win over top-seeded Tennessee. Griner was dominant on both ends of the floor when she led the Lady Bears (26-9) with 27 points and 10 blocks, and when she wasn’t blocking shots or scoring, she was drawing double- and triple-team defense that opened up her teammates.
Griner had a tournament-record 14 blocks in the second round against Georgetown, and her 26 rejections in the tournament rank second all time behind Alison Bales’ 30 blocks in six NCAA tournament games in 2006.
“Obviously she poses a different kind of challenge because of her height,” Duke junior center Krystal Thomas said. “With the schedule that we’ve played, I’ve played some of the best posts in the country. It’s just another opponent, another game, another day.”
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie would prefer to not even give Griner or fellow post player Morghan Medlock the chance to be disruptive under the basket. She’d rather the ACC champion Blue Devils get their points in transition.
The Blue Devils’ 23 steals in their 66-58 win over San Diego State in the regional semifinals were the second most in an NCAA tournament game, and they scored 32 points off those turnovers.
“Twenty-three steals in one game is an amazing thing to see. I’m sure that won’t repeat very soon, but we have got to have that kind of tenacity and quickness to the ball,” McCallie said.
Kim Mulkey, who is coaching Baylor in the program’s second regional semifinal, is familiar with the tough defenses of McCallie-coached teams. It’s the main thing she remembers when the two faced each other in the 2005 NCAA championship game with McCallie coaching Michigan State at the time.
“She played a lot of zone with Michigan State,” Mulkey said. “Of course with different personnel you do different things, and she’s extended her zones. She’s pressing with the athletes she has.”
Those athletes include junior guard Jasmine Thomas and Cheek, who combined for 43 of Duke’s total points against San Diego State. Thomas alone has averaged 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and three steals in NCAA tournament play.
“Duke is a very long, athletic, active team,” said Baylor junior guard Melissa Jones. “It’s going to take patience and smart decisions to get past them.”