MEMPHIS — With just over four minutes left in the game, No. 2 Duke seemed to have clinched a bid to the Final Four.
The Blue Devils led No. 4 Baylor by eight points, 46-38. But then things turned sour, and missed shots and fouls from the Blue Devils helped the Lady Bears gain four quick points in the next 10 seconds.
Duke used solid rebounding to briefly stabilize its lead before center Krystal Thomas, the team’s most effective guard against Baylor’s 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, fouled out. From there, the game only went further downhill, as the Lady Bears’ Melissa Jones made a quick layup followed by an easy basket by Griner, earning the Lady Bears a one-point lead with 45 seconds left.
Senior Bridgette Mitchell fouled Jones, who made both free throws, all but guaranteeing at least an extension into overtime, if not a victory, for Baylor.
Under immense pressure by Baylor’s strong defense, senior Joy Cheek missed two 3-pointers as time expired to end Duke’s bid for a trip to the Final Four, 51-48.
“It was a very interesting basketball game, and it was a very hard fought, physical contest,” head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “I’m very proud of our team’s efforts and the fight they showed out there. We did the best we could with what we had, and our team fought very, very hard.”
Throughout the game, Duke had trouble defending Griner, who made countless easy shots in the paint and accumulated 15 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks. Losing Thomas for the last three minutes certainly helped the freshman’s cause, clearing the way for her go-ahead layup.
“[Thomas] was critically responsible for making Griner work so hard,” McCallie said. “What Krystal Thomas did was tremendous and outstanding. Obviously, Brittney Griner is just a young, developing, excellent player. She’s very hard to defend. If you take our best 6-foot-4 player out of the game for the last three minutes, it changes the game enormously. And they took advantage, and Griner scored right away.”
The Blue Devils started the game on a cold streak, missing 10 jumpers and three layups early. A Jasmine Thomas free throw was Duke’s only score for the first six minutes. Thomas and her teammates were hesitant on offense, trying to compensate for Griner’s size.
“If she’s standing in the middle of the paint, you don’t want to take it right at her,” Thomas said. “We are trying to draw her out, trying to pick and choose our shots. We may have missed our first 10 shots, but a lot of them were right in the paint with her.”
Duke’s troubles continued all night, shooting only 23 percent for the game. The Blue Devils particularly struggled in the paint, as Griner dominated defensively. Of Duke’s seven second-half field goals, only two came inside.
When asked about what made Baylor’s defense so difficult to beat, Cheek answered, “Griner. When you have somebody in the paint with shot-blocking ability like that, it can make it difficult for you to take the shots you want to take.”
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The freshman power forward was in for almost the entire game, sitting out less than a minute. Other than Griner, however, Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey wanted to put quicker, smaller players on the court to add offensive firepower.
“We needed offense, and I didn’t think we were getting offense,” Mulkey said. “I went with some fast and quick athletes because they have been pressing all year. If they were going to keep pressing, let’s attack the press and get some transition buckets to cut the lead. I realized we were going to give up some offensive boards, but we were giving up those offensive boards with the five that had been playing the most minutes all year.”
Monday’s game was McCallie’s second NCAA Tournament matchup with Mulkey, the first coming when McCallie coached at Michigan State and faced the Lady Bears in the championship game in 2005. McCallie came away from the last contest with an 84-62 loss.
This time the margin was much smaller, but the result stayed the same. McCallie’s team saw its season end. An ending no Blue Devil could have hoped for.