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Women’s Final Four: Baylor holds on to beat Oregon 72-67

Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown combine for 43 points and 18 rebounds for the Bears.
Baylor's Kalani Brown (21) and DiDi Richards (2) celebrate the lead over Oregon Ducks during the second half in the NCAA Women's Final Four semifinal game at the Amalie Arena on Friday, April 5, 2019. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Baylor's Kalani Brown (21) and DiDi Richards (2) celebrate the lead over Oregon Ducks during the second half in the NCAA Women's Final Four semifinal game at the Amalie Arena on Friday, April 5, 2019. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Apr. 6, 2019|Updated Apr. 6, 2019

TAMPA — After top-seeded Baylor and upstart Oregon battled in an airtight first half Friday night, forward Lauren Cox said what everyone was thinking in the Lady Bears locker room.

Wow. We haven’t had this in a while.

But facing their closest game in a month, the Lady Bears still knew what to do.

They dominated in the post and shined down the stretch to eke out a 72-67 Women’s Final Four win at Amalie Arena.

Baylor improved to 36-1 with its 28th consecutive victory, which came 14 years to the day of their first national championship. The Lady Bears added another title seven years later and will try to add a third seven years after that in Sunday night’s championship.

While Baylor played with the poise of a perennial power, the Ducks (33-5) looked like a program in its first ever Final Four.

After averaging an NCAA-low 9.9 turnovers per game entering Friday, Oregon lost the ball seven times in the first quarter alone and 10 times through the first 24 minutes.

Superstar guard Sabrina Ionescu — the Ward Trophy winner as the top player in the nation — went scoreless through the first 11 minutes, and the best 3-point shooting team in the nation missed eight of its first 11 attempts.

“Just don't know if we ever really got our game going,” Ducks coach Kelly Graves said. “We saw bits and pieces of it here and there.”

But Baylor’s size kept it from fully materializing.

The Lady Bears pounded the post offensively with the 6-foot-4 Cox and 6-foot-7 center Kalani Brown. They combined for 43 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks and were pivotal in Baylor’s 48-20 advantage in points in the paint.

Even when Oregon seemed to make the right decision, it struggled with Baylor’s height.

Ionescu made a gorgeous pass to Oti Gildon in the closing minute of the first half, but Cox swatted it away. After Baylor one missed 3, Cox volley-balled a rebound to Brown for an easy layup. Cox even blocked a Satou Sabally runner that would have given the Ducks the lead with two and a half minutes left.

“They were beasts inside,” said Ionescu, who hasn’t decided whether she’ll return for her senior season or leave early for next week’s WNBA draft. “But we had to adjust, and we didn’t.”

They tried. Because Baylor held Oregon to 10-of-26 shooting in the paint, the Ducks relied even more on outside shots than usual. Oregon launched 32 3-pointers —their third-most of the season —and made 12, tying the record for most ever in a national semifinal.

Ionescu scored all 18 of her points in the middle two quarters to keep Oregon close, which few teams have done against Baylor all season.

The Lady Bears were the third team ever to enter the Final Four after winning all of its tournament games by at least 25 points. Of Baylor’s first 35 wins, only six were by single digits —none since a 63-57 triumph over West Virginia on March 4.

But Baylor never worried about how it’d handle a tight game, even when it trailed 64-61 with 6:10 left.

“There was nothing to draw up,” Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey said. “There were no magical words to say. Go play.”

So Baylor did.

Cox answered with a quick basket, and Baylor’s defense tightened. Oregon missed 12 of its final 13 shots; two were blocked layups.

Baylor’s bigs didn’t come up with its biggest score. That was guard Chloe Jackson, who drove for a layup to break a 67-67 tie with 41 seconds left.

But the Lady Bears’ size still came through late. Brown grabbed a pivotal rebound, and Cox and Brown made three free throws to seal the win and a trip back to the national championship.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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