TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — 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 defensively 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. Now, Baylor has a chance to win its third national title with her in charge, facing Notre Dame for the title on Sunday night.
The 56-year-old coach, in her 19th season at Baylor, said she never questioned how her team, who’s played only a handful of games decided by fewer than 10 points, would respond when they fell behind 64-61 with just over six 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 said.
“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. We saw bits and pieces of it here and there. Credit them. A really good defensive team.”
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.
“I think this is just going to make us more hungry to get back to this stage,” Ionescu said.
The opening semifinal at sold-out Amalie Arena was billed as “old school” vs. “new school” — a matchup of contrasting styles, with Baylor hoping to exploit a size advantage inside with an imposing frontcourt of the 6-foot-7 Brown and 6-4 Cox and Oregon looking to test the Lady Bears’ ability to defend the 3-point line.
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.
“Our practices prepare us for these moments,” Mulkey said after Baylor’s closest game since a 74-68 win at Texas on Feb. 4.
Baylor, whose only loss was at Stanford in mid-December, trounced its first four opponents in the NCAA tournament by an average of just over 38 points per game. In doing so, the Lady Bears became just the third team since the field was expanded to 64 teams to win each of their games en route to the Final Four by 25-plus points.
UConn did it twice, in 2010 and 2013, and capped each of those seasons with a national championship.
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. We’re not going anywhere.”
Baylor, which was 0-for-3 and outscored 36-0 from behind the 3-point line, shot 54.4 percent. The Lady Bears are 218-1 all-time when shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
When Richards picked up her fourth foul in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, Landrum took on the assignment of guarding Ionescu the remainder of the game.
The only basket Oregon scored over the final six minutes was Satou Sabally’s 3-pointer that tied it at 67.
Sabally joined Ionescu in double figures with 16 points. Erin Boley added 14, including four 3-pointers, before fouling out.
Ionescu faces a decision in the next few days about whether to return to Oregon for her senior season or enter the WNBA draft.
The 5-foot-11 guard from Walnut Creek, California, was the only player in the country averaging at least 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. She also set a NCAA single-season record with eight triple-doubles, boosting her career total to 18 — another NCAA mark.
Asked during a postgame news conference if she’s made a decision about her future, Ionescu responded with a single word: “No.”
Little pieces of confetti that appeared to be falling from above an area above the scoreboard occasionally fell to the floor during the game and had to be removed during stoppages in play.
Coming out of a timeout in the third quarter, Jackson spotted a small piece of paper falling to the court and caught it before smiling and handing it to an official.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/WomensNCAATournament and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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