UConn women’s basketball will face their toughest matchup of the entire NCAA tournament when they take on Baylor in the Elite Eight on Monday night. The Bears are 28-2 on the season and have not lost a game since Jan. 16.
Unsurprisingly and true to the typical identity of a Baylor team, they rank second in Her Hoop Stats’ defensive rating and fourth overall.
“They’re long, they’re athletic, they’re physical. They really try to intimidate you and impose their will on you defensively,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of the Bears’ defense. “They’re a very athletic, very physically intimidating team.”
While the focus of this game leans toward the battle in the post, the defensive tone starts in the backcourt with Baylor’s senior leader and reigning national defensive player of the year, Didi Richards. Richards has transitioned into the point guard role for Baylor this season and, at 6-foot-2, provides both size and length for the Bears in that spot. She will likely draw the assignment of guarding Paige Bueckers, which will be the toughest matchup the freshman has faced all year.
On the opposite end of the floor, Richards has excelled in her role as the team’s main distributor, averaging 6.4 assists per game — equal to her scoring average. The points from Baylor’s backcourt come primarily from fellow seniors Moon Ursin and DiJonai Carrington (who came to Baylor this season as a graduate transfer from Stanford).
Ursin averages 12.6 points per game but has been on a tear with at least 20 points in each of her first three NCAA tournament games. She is also the team’s best 3-point shooter but attempts an average of just over two shots from deep per game. In fact, the Bears as a whole score just 13 percent of their points from beyond the arc, the lowest mark in the country.
Carrington has come off the bench for Baylor all season and was named the Big 12 Sixth Women of the Year at the close of the regular season. Despite not starting, she’s fifth on the team in minutes and averages 13.8 points per game, second only to NaLyssa Smith.
Smith, who was named a first-team AP All-American this season, is the highlight of the Bears’ frontcourt. She averages 18.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game on the season and is coming off a perfect 11-11 from the floor performance to lead her team over Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen.
Not unlike UConn’s bigs, Smith’s game extends beyond posting up and crashing the offensive glass as she can step outside and shoot it while also being able to guard a variety of positions on the floor defensively.
“I don’t think there’s a big kid in the country that’s as versatile as she is,” Auriemma said of Smith.
While Smith should prove to be enough of a test for Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards on her own, the Bears also have a one-two-punch inside with Queen Egbo. Egbo adds over 11 points and eight boards for the Bears inside as well and also averages nearly two blocks per game.
Nelson-Ododa and Edwards have excelled with the tough matchups they’ve faced inside so far this tournament, but the test against Baylor significantly raises the difficulty level. The Huskies’ backcourt can likely outplay the Bears’ but UConn will also need to hold their own in the post battle to get the win.
UConn’s keys to the game
Build on the offensive performance against Iowa and get out in transition
UConn is not going to score 90 points in this ballgame, but moving the ball well on offense, getting contributions from everyone, and finding ways to execute some of their traditional UConn sets against a tough Baylor defense will go a long way for the Huskies. Baylor also averages over 16 turnovers per game, so UConn should look to turn their defense into offense for some easy transition buckets.
Limit second chance opportunities
Baylor has the second-best offensive rebounding rate in the country, collecting 45 percent of their own misses on the season. UConn, especially Nelson-Ododa and Edwards, need to crash the glass and limit the Bears’ opportunities for second-chance points. If UConn is struggling on the glass, Aubrey Griffin could also make a big impact in this game off the bench.
Defending well inside without fouling
Baylor likes to score inside, with their guards and forwards more than comfortable taking the ball into the paint. They’ve scored over 1,000 points on post-ups or around the basket this season, per Synergy, and have scored 1.15 points per play on those possessions. UConn needs to slow the Bears down inside, but also can’t afford to get into foul trouble. They’ll need to be able to keep their best players on the court to get the win.
Per Her Hoop Stats, the Huskies have a 63.5 percent chance of getting the win over Baylor, with a predicted margin of victory of four points. This game is going to be a battle between two teams that are playing some of the best basketball in the country right now. Whichever way it falls, it would be surprising if it is not decided by a single-digit margin.