NCAA TOURNAMENT: Women's title up for grabs after Louisville stuns Baylor
OKLAHOMA CITY — With Brittney Griner and defending champion Baylor gone, the NCAA women’s tournament is suddenly wide open.
Louisville did what hardly anyone else could do over the past two seasons, knocking out the Lady Bears, 82-81, in the regional semifinals Sunday night in one of the biggest stunners in tournament history.
Baylor (34-2) had won 32 straight games and 74 of 75 behind Griner, among the greatest players ever in her sport. But the 6-foot-8 star didn’t make a basket until the second half then committed a foul with 2.6 seconds left that gave Louisville a chance to win.
Monique Reid made those two foul shots, rescuing the Cardinals (27-8) after they squandered a 17-point lead in the last 7½ minutes.
It was a stunning end of a remarkable college career for Griner, the second-highest scoring player in NCAA history. She also holds the career records for blocks and dunks.
“I’m just sad,” Griner said. “I didn’t do what I needed to do to get my team to the Elite Eight and just disappointment in myself.”
Considered a lock for the Final Four — and prohibitive favorites to win a second straight championship — Griner and her Lady Bears instead are out early because of Louisville’s carefree offense, unconventional defense and Reid’s final fearless play.
“I saw Griner coming at me and I was like, ‘I’m going to have to get past her.’ I tried to make the layup and she took my head off,” Reid said.
Louisville went 16-for-25 from 3-point range, tying the NCAA tournament mark for 3s reached by four other teams and making the most ever in the regional semifinals or beyond. Shoni Schimmel had five 3s and 22 points, and Antonita Slaughter hit seven 3s for all of her 21 points.
Schimmel also had one of the highlight plays of the tournament, getting bumped by Griner and then getting a right-handed flip over her head to fall into the basket for what would become a three-point play.
“She’s Brittney Griner, but I’m Shoni Schimmel, you know? So I just kept going at her,” Schimmel said.
The Cardinals will play Tennessee in the regional final Tuesday for a berth in the Final Four. Louisville hasn’t been there since losing in the national title game in 2009, and the Lady Vols haven’t made it since winning the 2008 championship.
Both No. 1 seeds on that half of the bracket have been eliminated, with Stanford — the only team to beat Baylor the past two seasons — losing to Georgia on Saturday.
“If Louisville can hit 16 3s in a game, good Lord, they’ll win a national championship,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said.
Odyssey Sims scored 29 points, including two free throws with 9.1 seconds to go that put Baylor ahead for the only time at 81-80. Sims had one more chance to save the season, but she was off target and late on a desperation heave from near midcourt.
Sims dropped to the floor after her miss, pulling her jersey over her face and kicking her legs as she lay flat on her back.
Griner squatted near her and slapped the floor with both hands before pulling Sims up to her feet. Afterward, Griner tweeted out an apology “for letting everyone down.” Just a few days earlier, she had tweeted at halftime of a blowout against Florida State that she needed two more dunks — then came out and did it.
“It’s a tough way to lose,” said Mulkey, who harshly criticized the game officials. “It’s hard to lose when it’s your last game, but it’s even harder the way that game ended. Makes it a little tougher.”
Griner, who had averaged 33 points in Baylor’s first two games in the tournament, didn’t make a basket until she converted a putback with 15:20 left in the second half. She wound up with 14 points and 10 rebounds, making only four of her 10 shots and being a relative non-factor for her considerable stature.
Louisville surrounded Griner as she has been most of her career, using a zone defense Louisville coach Jeff Walz called the “claw and one.” He put one player in front of Griner and another behind her, and often another one in the vicinity.
“I think I could smell what toothpaste she used,” Slaughter said. “I was in her face the whole time with my hands up.”
Unusually, Griner’s teammates were unable to hit outside shots and relieve the pressure. It was Sims who finally fueled a 24-6 comeback when the barrage of 3-pointers stopped.
She hit both free throws after Walz was called for a technical foul for protesting Bria Smith’s fifth foul then made a runner to get the Lady Bears within 78-76 with 1:49 to play. Sims then answered Megan Deines’ layup with a 3-pointer to cut it to one with 35.8 seconds left before Jude Schimmel’s turnovers set up her free throws to give Baylor a short-lived lead.
The win made it quite a day for Louisville. Hours earlier, the men’s team beat Duke 85-63 to reach the Final Four. Part of Walz’s pregame message to the team was about the gruesome leg injury suffered by Kevin Ware in the men’s game, telling his players that basketball is still a game.
“I told our kids in the locker room before the game, we’ve got to turn this thing into a street ball game. You’ve got to drive and kick for 3s and try to make it fun. There was no pressure on us,” Walz said. “We came out and did that, and I’m honored to coach this group of young ladies.”