What did we learn from Baylor’s win over UConn?

Megan Walker unleashes a three-point shot. Steve Slade/UConn Athletics.
Megan Walker unleashes a three-point shot. Steve Slade/UConn Athletics.

Then-No. 6 Baylor defeated then-No. 1 Connecticut decisively last week, 74-58.

Despite the final margin, most of the game was highly-competitive. Early in the fourth quarter just one point separated the teams, but the Bears played confidently in the final stanza, while the Huskies faded away.

It is January, and both coaches agreed that this game was just a snapshot of a moment in time, and not a prediction.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey warned about assuming too much from the result.

“Win or lose, we knew it would be a good game,” she said. “But I would say the same if we’d lost the game. [Today] is not indicative of what will be.”

“I don’t think there’s one team that’s just head and shoulders above everybody. I think there’s about six teams that have the ability and talent and coaching to win it all this year. We’re one of them. Connecticut is one of them.”

There are some observations that can be made from the game. But by no means are they predictive of March.

  1. If their guards continue to hit three’s, the Bears could repeat

Entering the game, Baylor had scored 59 percent of its points in the paint (622 points), and 28 percent on two-pointers elsewhere (290 points.) They had sunk just 48 three’s in 12 games, and those 144 points accounted for just 13 percent of their 1,056 points.

This figured into Husky coach Geno Auriemma’s expectations and game planning.

“[W]e knew they were going to get probably to 65, 67 [points], and then we needed to get to 70, 75. And that we needed to make more threes than them,” he said. “We made eight, they made seven. We needed to make 10 or 11. We didn’t.”

UConn’s 113 made three’s this season did not average either 10 or 11, but they had made 9.4 per game. Auriemma’s point was a good one. The Huskies had the creds, but did not hit often enough from beyond the arc.

Their defensive game-plan focused inside, and successfully limited Baylor to just four paint points in the first period, and eight in the second.

The Bears responded by going outside, and seized the lead for good in a second quarter in which they hit four of seven three’s, giving them a surprising 15 points from beyond the arc to 12 in the paint in the first half.

Mulkey showed amused annoyance last season that ESPN had called her offense “old school” – apparently a reference to 2019’s post-dominant play. Against UConn, her team proved that this year’s squad was different.

Auriemma was more than impressed with the change in the Bears.

“[Baylor this year is] able to score a lot of different ways,” he said. “They’re not so predictable.”

“Last year it was really hard to guard with Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox down there. But, with Nalyssa Smith they are way more athletic now. So they can beat you a lot of different ways, instead of just posting you up and throwing it in there. And Lauren’s making a lot more shots from the perimeter than she did last year. And as I said, if they’re going to get three or four or five three’s every game, it makes them almost impossible to defend.”

  1. This UConn team has not learned to play four quarters of a game

The Huskies played stellar basketball in the first quarter against Baylor. They played high-level basketball for 22 more minutes, though they missed many shots (and way too many layups) that they usually make during that time.

They were within three points of the Bears after three periods, and scored the first points of the period to pull within one.

Then they collapsed.

UConn only managed six points in the fourth quarter on two buckets and a free throw. They shot 2-18 in that period.

They have had a lot of these quarters throughout the year, when they stop running offense and appear to have lost all the skills they learned in practice. They have missed an astonishing number of layups all season.

What is the problem? I’m not sure anyone has been able to put a finger on it – even Auriemma. One possible explanation is that the team really has had no vocal leader since Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck graduated in 2016.

The players who followed just seem to be “too nice,” as Auriemma has put it. The team features no player with an aggressive, “killer” personality, which is often the solution to a lull in focus. Senior Crystal Dangerfield tries to be that leader, but she really does not have that personality, and has not managed to pull it off regularly.

Perhaps another way to express the same idea is that no one on this UConn team has ever had to be the go-to player in a high-pressure game.

“We’ve got a really young team,” Auriemma said. “Young in in terms of being able to play in this kind of game.”

“They don’t know how to play in this kind of game where you’re counting on them to make shots that other people used to make for them. We’re kind of immature in that way.”

The difference is apparent this season.

“Usually by this time in the year, the guys who were All-Americans last year are carrying the load,” Auriemma said. “But we don’t have any. So it’s all brand new for these guys.”

  1. Nalyssa Smith is poised to be an All-American
NaLyssa Smith controls the ball as Christyn Williams gives chase. Steve Slade, UConn Athletics.
NaLyssa Smith controls the ball as Christyn Williams gives chase. David Butler II.

With all the attention rightfully being be paid to Cox, athletic, 6-2 sophomore Nalyssa Smith is going to have a huge season. Against the Huskies she scored 20 points on 9-13 shooting and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. None of this is a surprise to Big 12 coaches, who voted her onto the preseason All-Big 12 team, but most everyone else is just learning how good she really has become. After shredding UConn’s defense, in her next game she scored 30 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Oklahoma State.

Last season Smith was the third option in the post after Kalani Brown and Cox. With Brown gone her role is larger this year, and that includes dealing with better defenders. But Smith has stepped right in where she left off at the end of last season. In her final game (the National Championship) she played just 17 minutes, but scored 14 points on 7-9 shooting.

This season she now leads the team in scoring (16.9 ppg) rebounding (8.1 rpg), shooting percentage (.609), and free throws made (53) and attempted (69). Did we mention she is only a sophomore?

  1. This UConn team could be good enough to go deep into March. Or not.

“[W]hen she was good, she was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid.”   – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Like Longfellow’s little girl with “a little curl,” UConn has played wonderful basketball at times, and looked like a high school team at others. We saw both aspects against Baylor.

The “wonderful basketball” part includes the following:

– The often-maligned Husky defense held Baylor 14 points below their season average, and effectively kept a post-oriented offense out of the paint.

(On the other hand, the UConn offense shot 20 points below their season average. The team’s post players – Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Aubrey Griffin, and starter Kyla Irwin – were 0-14 on the day.)

– When running the offense in the first 30 minutes, the Huskies got a lot of open shots, and Auriemma took some solace from that.

“I gotta believe, if we get the same shots, and as many of them as we got, we’ll make more of them [next time],” he said. “Today we didn’t. “

Part of the problem is that, as pointed out above, the only player the team has leaned on in the past is Dangerfield, and even she is facing a different look from most teams.

Auriemma noted an obvious, but easily overlooked, difference from last season.

“You know those dopes that were guarding you last year?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, now, the guys that were guarding Pheesa (Napheesa Collier) and Lou (Katie Lou) Samuelson) are guarding you.”

“So, whatever you were doing to try to get open last year, ain’t going to work this year. That’s a shocker to them. Things are harder, and it takes some getting used to.”

– Auriemma was clearly displeased with the effort of posts Nelson-Ododa and Griffin, and he benched both in the fourth period. This left the Huskies without any rim-protection for a full 10 minutes, and Baylor scored all of its field goals (10 points) in the paint. Had UConn had a player on the court over 6-2, the final score could have been smaller.

In addition, six of the Bears’ fourth quarter points were scored on free throws when the game was no longer in doubt, and UConn fouled them to no purpose. So, the real margin could be seen as 10 points.

– Nelson-Ododa could hardly play worse offensively, and her coach believes she will mature in the next three months.

“You know when the season started I said that Liv is probably the key guy that we’re going to need,” he said “And tonight just didn’t work out.”

“[Her offensive struggle] is a combination of things. She’s her own worst enemy. She plays tentatively. And she’s going to get better. And she will be better, the more games she plays. . . . The next time we play in this kind of game, she’ll play a lot better.”

– Megan Walker had a tough game against the Bears, shooting 5-20, but still managed 18 points. She is having an All-American year, currently standing in the top 15 nationally in both points per game and three point percentage, while leading her team in rebounding (9.4 rpg) as a 6-1 small forward.

– Sophomore Christyn Williams has always been a scorer, but in the last month has dramatically improved as a rebounder and passer. She should continue to improve in all aspects of the game. (She’s been awful from beyond the arc this year, however, shooting just .279, after a freshman season .367.)

Auriemma is, again, optimistic that he’ll see more from her.

“I never worry about Christyn in these games. Christyn can pretty much take the ball and go wherever she wants,” he said. “And she’s fearless. And yes, she’s not shot the ball well from the perimeter this year. But I don’t worry about her. And she’s only a sophomore, so she’s only going to get better.”

The coach is realistic about what this game meant, and what it didn’t mean. UConn might be great by the post-season, or the Huskies could fail to overcome the lack of confidence that led to the magnitude of this defeat.

“We’re like a lot of teams in the country now,” he said. “I think at this time of the year, you have to treat every game – especially a game like this one, against a really, really good team – like it’s a part of your class, and this is one of the tests you have to take. And what would be devastating was if this was the final.”

“All I can do is to get this team to be as good as this team can be. And I don’t know how good that is. I mean, we’re going to be better than we were today, obviously. But how good, come March, I don’t know.”