Greensboro, NC – Baylor and Iowa are preparing to face each other in the Greensboro regional final Monday night, with a Final Four berth on the line.
Both teams dominated in the Sweet 16, with Iowa taking a 79-61 victory over NC State and Baylor utterly dismantling South Carolina, 93-68. Given the superiority they’ve displayed through their respective tourney runs, their pending clash has the potential to be truly epic.
Bears coach Kim Mulkey likes where her squad is mentally, and she is glad they’ve maintained a loose vibe throughout the tournament.
“Breakfast was the same. I thought the film room was the same,” Mulkey said today. “You know, they are just happy kids. They are happy people. They just talk, chatty. Watch the film. Listen to the scouting report. [They’re the] same old bunch.”
Coach Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes are slightly more solemn and focused, befitting a No. 2 team going up against the No. 1 overall seed. But she, too, is pleased with her team’s mindset.
“I know my team won’t back down to anybody,” Bluder said. “We know and respect Baylor. But we’re ready to play.”
Obviously, much of the national attention will be focused on Iowa’s star center Megan Gustafson and Baylor’s Kalani Brown, the lefty bigs and Leslie Award finalists who will battle each other down low. Brown feels the match up is important but also somewhat overblown hype-wise.
“I think it’s a little of both to be honest,” she said. “It’s just going to be two great post players playing a game.”
Brown’s front-court mate Lauren Cox, a formidable post in her own right, pointed out that the match ups down low will be more duo vs. duo than purely a Brown/Gustafson battle.
“They have a good duo inside with (Hannah) Stewart and her. They run kind of some of the same stuff we do with the lob plays,” Cox said. “Our main offense look … just like that high-low passing. So I think it will be a good matchup.”
Gustafson also believes the paint will be a two-on-two battle.
“They have a great couple post players, and [a high] level of physicality,” Gustafson said. “They have a couple inches on me and Hannah, so we’ve just got to be ready for that physical play. … Especially, we’ve got to focus on our footwork.”
Stewart is ready to play.
“We’re really excited about it,” she said. “I think we match up well against them.”
The game will hinge on more than the much-ballyhooed paint battle, however. Both the Hawkeyes and the Bears boast exceptional guards capable of scoring outbursts, and whichever team can find a hotter hand shooting outside will have an edge. The back courts for both teams understand that while the spotlight in the game will shine primarily on the paint, their play will be equally vital to success.
Baylor’s Juicy Landrum, whom Mulkey pulled aside during the South Carolina game in an effort to get her in more of an attacking mindset, knows she needs to step up on Monday.
“I think I definitely do need to come out and be more aggressive … that’s my motivation from [Mulkey],” she said.
Hawkeye point guard Tania Davis is similarly focused on aggression in the back court.
“For guards … we’re going to have to be strong with the ball,” Davis said. “We’re pretty much prepared for it.”
Even more than back-court offense, perimeter defense will be a significant factor in the game. Both teams primarily run their offense through the post, so stepping up on defense early in possessions and preventing post touches and high-low action, will be essential.
Iowa’s Kathleen Doyle emphasized the importance of defending the outside.
“They definitely have a great group of guards that we’re going to have to try to disrupt offensively,” she said. “All we can do is try to make their life as hard as possible, so it’s all about trying to bring that defensive intensity.”
Cox said the Bears are similarly aware of their opponent’s perimeter threats.
“I think they are going to shoot a lot more threes than South Carolina did,” she said.
Both coaches’ thoughts on Monday night were measured but optimistic. They know one game stands between their and the Final Four.
“We want to keep going and we want to keep playing and we want to get this team and our coaches to the Final Four,” Bluder said. “We know we have things stacked against us, but it only takes once. It only takes once, and maybe that once will be tomorrow.”
Mulkey echoed her adversary’s sentiments in her own terse style.
“Those kids have to go out there on the floor and they have to do it,” she said. “it’s an exciting time for all those kids on both teams, and it should be.”
Tomorrow’s game tips at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.