How old-school Baylor defied the 3-point revolution to win national title

Jeff Eisenberg
TAMPA, FL - APRIL 07: The Baylor Bears celebrate winning the NCAA Division I Women's National Championship Game against the the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on April 07, 2019, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - APRIL 07: The Baylor Bears celebrate winning the NCAA Division I Women's National Championship Game against the the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on April 07, 2019, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If your only exposure to Baylor women’s basketball came during Sunday night’s national title game, then Notre Dame’s unorthodox defensive strategy may have left you a little perplexed.

All five Irish defenders typically stood at least a few feet inside the 3-point arc, daring the Bears to take wide-open perimeter jumpers.

In the midst of an unprecedented 3-point boom across all levels of basketball, the Baylor women have proven spacing the floor with perimeter shooters is not the only formula for success. The Bears captured their third national title in program history by deemphasizing outside shooting and bludgeoning opponents in the paint.

Only twice did Baylor sink a 3-pointer during its thrilling 82-81 victory over Notre Dame in Sunday’s championship game. That was two more threes than the Bears hit in their national semifinal victory over Oregon and one more than the one apiece they made in beating Iowa and South Carolina in the Elite Eight and Sweet 16.

Baylor’s indifference to perimeter shooting during the NCAA tournament was by no means an aberration. The Bears are 347th out of 351 Division I teams in 3-pointers attempted this season and three times have won games without making a single shot behind the arc.

How does a team with so little perimeter firepower pile up a 37-1 record and win the national championship? Why does a team that collectively shoots a very respectable 37.5 percent from behind the arc insist on finding other ways to win?

A big reason is that Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has always attracted and emphasized top low-post talent, from Sophia Young to Brittany Griner, to the Bears’ current-day stars. This year’s team is anchored by a pair of old-school frontcourt players who score efficiently around the basket because they’re taller, longer and more skilled than any opposing interior duo.

Kalani Brown is an elite back-to-the-basket scorer and shot blocker, a 6-foot-7 lefty who displays deft footwork on the low block and shoots over 60 percent from the field. Lauren Cox was also the top-ranked frontcourt player in her high school class, a versatile 6-foot-4 forward whose passing from the high post is as dangerous as her scoring and rebounding prowess.

Notre Dame has a frontcourt tandem of its own that typically causes mismatches against any opponent it has faced. Not so against Baylor, as Irish coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged before the game.

“This is the first time we've played a team that has two outstanding post players,” McGraw said. “We've generally thought we had abnormal advantage in the post. That would be our game plan — to go inside. We do not feel that way [against Baylor]. They have terrific players inside with Lauren and Kalani.”

The offensive rebounding of Brown and the all-around excellence of Cox was a big part of Baylor building an early double-digit lead and maintaining it throughout the first three quarters. The duo combined for 28 points, 21 rebounds and five blocks even though Cox left the game with a knee injury late in the third quarter.

While the loss of Cox staggered Baylor and created an opening for Notre Dame to surge back into the game, her freshman replacement filled in admirably on offense.

Bouncy 6-foot-2 forward NaLyssa Smith scored 14 points in only 17 minutes, hurting Notre Dame by attacking the rim off the dribble and on the offensive glass. Where she struggled was on defense when Notre Dame attacked her in the low post or used a ball screen to switch star guard Arike Ogunbowale onto her.

“You knew they were going to expose her on the defensive end, but she never let it rattle her,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “She came back. Every time she'd give up a basket, she'd make a basket.”

When Notre Dame paid so much attention to Baylor’s interior players, it was point guard Chloe Jackson who took advantage.

A transfer from LSU who had come to Baylor to have the chance to compete for a championship, Jackson scored a game-high 26 points on Sunday night without so much as attempting a 3-pointer. Jackson had the Bears’ most important basket, a tie-breaking driving layup with 3.9 seconds left.

“[Mulkey] told me just get to the basket,” Jackson said. “If the wing helps over, kick it to Juicy [Landrum]. If not, get all the way to the rim. That's what I did.”

The Baylor player most comfortable shooting from the perimeter is Landrum, a 39.1 percent 3-point shooter as a junior. Landrum took all seven threes that Baylor hoisted on Sunday and has more 3-point attempts this season than all her teammates combined.

With its thrilling victory on Sunday night, Baylor now has more national titles than any women’s basketball program besides UConn and Tennessee.

In an era of pace and space, the Bears showed that throwback basketball still has a place too.

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