TEMPE, Ariz. (BP)–The Baylor University Lady Bears have racked up another first for the school, advancing to the Final Four for the first time after defeating the University of North Carolina Tar Heels 72-63 March 28 in the Elite Eight.
“I’m definitely pumped. This a dream come true,” senior post Steffanie Blackmon said. “From preseason, we’re thinking about going all the way and every game we’ve taken it one game at a time. To get here and get to Indianapolis is just a dream we’ve been working for.”
The Lady Bears extended their nine-point halftime lead to 19 points in the second half before the Tar Heels began chipping away at it. A six-minute Baylor scoring drought also helped the Heels.
With 11 minutes left in game, junior forward Sophia Young made two free throws to give the Lady Bears their 19-point lead. Baylor didn’t score again until the 5:34 mark when Blackmon made a jumper to put Baylor up by 13.
“I think we lost our composure a little bit. I think we were playing not to lose,” head Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson said. “We had a few turnovers, and I think the missed free throws snowballed on us and we lost our composure a little bit. But you know we’ve never been in that position before. We won the basketball game, and that’s all that matters.”
UNC cut Baylor’s lead to seven points with 24 seconds left, but the efforts weren’t enough to overcome the Lady Bears. Blackmon sealed the deal with two free throws in the final seven seconds of the game.
In the first half, Baylor and UNC traded baskets and the lead before the Lady Bears pulled out to nine-point halftime lead. Baylor took the lead behind Young’s six points in the final six minutes of the half.
In the final six seconds of the half, senior guard Chelsea Whitaker drove the length of the court for a final-second layup to give Baylor a 33-24 halftime lead.
Baylor’s defense held UNC’s phenomenal freshman center Erlana Larkins to just six points and six rebounds with three turnovers.
“We knew that she was a pretty good rebounder, and we tried to block her out as much as possible and give her one shot,” Young said. “I think Steffanie did a really good job on her at the beginning of the game. I think we took her out of her game after giving her just one shot. I think we got in her mind.”
The defense also shut down UNC’s outside shooting, only allowing point guard Ivory Latta to make three of her 13 3-pointers.
“Chelsea did a great job of running the scouting report and really picking up her [Latta’s] habits and tendencies,” junior guard Chameka Scott said. “We talked a lot before the game, and she knew exactly what she had to do. I think our defense, her defense in particular, really led us to do some things offensively. Her defens[ive] presence on the court is invaluable to us, and I think she stepped up big time as a senior and as a leader on our team.”
After Baylor’s perimeter play had been lacking the past few games in the tournament, including a low shooting percentage from behind the 3-point line, Scott and sophomore forward Emily Niemann stepped up and hit some crucial 3-pointers.
Scott played the entire game and hit four 3-pointers, while Niemann had two from behind the arc. Baylor finished 40 percent from the 3-point line.
“I definitely took it as a challenge to be that extra offensive threat on our team, especially on defense as well to help out as much as I could,” Scott said. “I couldn’t let those last games affect me right now. Take it one game at a time, and what’s in the past is in the past. Basically I just came out with the focus that were going to leave it out on the court and get the job done, and I think we did a really good job.”
Mulkey said she never talked to Scott and Niemann about their previous performances, but kept telling them to shoot the ball because they were going to get open looks.
Both also were active on the defensive end. Scott finished with four steals and two blocks while Niemann totaled a game-high five blocks against the Heels.
For her efforts on both ends of the court, Scott was named the Diet Coke Player of the Game. She finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and one assist.
Young also had another productive game, scoring a double-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four steals.
Young earned another honor to add to her already long list of achievements. She was named the 2005 Tempe Regional Most Outstanding Player.
Sophomore forward Abiola Wabara joined Young on the all-tournament team for efforts during the regional.
Wabara finished the game with seven points, six rebounds, three assists and one block against UNC.
“Abby is so physical and so aggressive,” Mulkey said. “She can guard you on the perimeter and she can guard you in the paint. She’s got long arms. She’ll bang with you down there. I’m happy for Abby. She … is really the silent, unnoticed player. She’s strong. I thought her defense was tremendous.”
After her team shot 31.3 percent in the first half, UNC head Coach Sylvia Hatchell said she thought her team’s first-half shot selection was poor.
“We normally play a lot better, but I think Baylor had something to do with that,” she said.
Hatchell also said she thought Baylor came out with more momentum and came out tougher than UNC and doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses.
The Lady Bears will now face the Louisiana State University Lady Tigers Sunday in the Final Four. This is second matchup this season between the two teams.
In the first meeting on Nov. 14, 2004 at the State Farm Tip-Off Classic in Austin, Baylor came back from a 19-point halftime deficit to lose by one point.
Scott said the Final Four is something you look at as a kid.
“Here we are. I think it took a lot of focus and teamwork on our behalf, and I couldn’t think of a better group of girls to go to Indianapolis with,” she said.
Catherine Brown is the sports editor for The Lariat, the student newspaper of Baylor University. Used by permission.