There were at least two ways to think about forward Danielle Adams' poor performances in Texas A&M's first three games against the Baylor Lady Bears this season.
- Strong performances from Adams in any one of those three games would have been enough to help TAMU close the gap and win.
- The fact that TAMU had come close without Adams shows that her scoring performances weren't necessarily the key to competing with Baylor.
In TAMU's 58-46 Elite Eight win over Baylor on Tuesday, what we actually saw was a confirmation of the latter angle or perhaps a vastly understated angle with regard to this matchup: if TAMU's biggest statistical strength is an impressive turnover percentage differential of just over 11% (15.96% vs. opponents' 27.01%), then perhaps they're a team that thrives on defensive pressure from their guards. If we accept that, then the burden of victory fell squarely on TAMU's guard play - both in terms of containing Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims, making passes to Brittney Griner in the post difficult, and minimizing their own turnovers.
So it should come as little surprise then that it took a combination of stopping Sims from driving, minimizing their own turnovers, and preventing Griner from getting good looks. That analysis begins with that "synergy rating" statistic.
Key statistic: Baylor never established their rhythm on offense
As it turned out, TAMU did not force turnovers at a rate any higher than their previous three meetings. In fact, both Baylor's 28% turnover percentage and 11.22% turnover percentage differential against TAMU in the Elite Eight was its second lowest in the four meetings. The biggest difference is that Baylor simply didn't get good shots against TAMU and missed Griner on a number of occasions meaning that while turnovers were definitely the most significant statistical factor in deciding this game, Baylor's lacking rhythm shows up best in their synergy rating.
Baylor's statistics in four meetings with TAMU.
Obviously, you could look at those numbers alone and say that TAMU's ability to prevent Baylor from scoring efficiently was the key as clearly the assist rates were only marginally different and the turnover percentage was lower than previous. And the fact that their poorer shooting efficiency was paired with a significantly lower offensive rebounding percentage absolutely means something - TAMU both forced Baylor into bad shots and prevented second chance opportunities much more effectively.
So why focus on synergy?
Although it seems like a bizarre concoction, synergy rating has the remarkable ability to describe what we see in terms of ball movement - generally, the most fluid teams have higher synergy ratings and teams that rely less on ball movement have lower synergy. The way to explain that is that it looks at both whether you're picking up assists and whether you're getting high percentage shots. What TAMU did an outstanding job of on Tuesday was frustrating Baylor into relying almost exclusively on Griner - although she had the same number of attempts as in the Big XII Championship game, nobody else got into double digit field goal attempts. Odyssey Sims who had 14 attempts even in their the Big XII Championship game - when she only scored 6 points - only had 6 attempts in the Elite Eight.
So when people said during the game that Baylor's guards looked confused, that's what's reflected in their very different shot distribution in their fourth meeting and thus the lower synergy. And although Baylor's second half shooting efficiency was much higher (36.4% eFg% vs. first half 26.9%), TAMU coach Gary Blair's description of what happened in the second half mirror the statistical story.
"Coach Schaefer made the choice to go to zone early in the second half," Blair said after the game. "It's a zone that we have just put in. One-day preparation on this particular zone and it worked. It was a gimmicky thing with Tyra White coming down in front and Griner down there and Danielle behind. And I thought Baylor tried too much to try to get it in to Griner instead of letting some of their other players take the ball to the elbow and get the shot off like (Melissa) Jones did at the end."
Despite the commonly accepted notion that teams struggle to rebound out of a zone, TAMU actually rebounded more effectively out of their "gimmick" zone: Baylor's offensive rebounding percentage fell from 39% to 21% and their second chance points fell with it, going from 10 to 3. It really was an outstanding defensive performance all around to disrupt Baylor's rhythm. But as Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said, the difference in this game was guard play and the most obvious example of that was Odyssey Sims' performance.
Key player: Sydney Colson's defense helps keep Sims off the free throw line
One of the storylines prior to the game was whether Sydney Colson could stay out of foul trouble. However, with the exception of that Big XII championship game in which she had four fouls, she had stayed out of foul trouble against Baylor. Tuesday's game was just more impressive - Colson had 5 steals and only two fouls, which is a level of defensive efficiency that would please any coach. But her biggest impact didn't show up in the stats.
Although Baylor had a relatively high free throw rate as a team (52.1%), the biggest difference between this game and the others was free throw attempts. Consistent with the notion that Baylor's offense was out of sync and Griner taking responsibility for a larger portion of the offense - and the reason to go through such great lengths to show just how much TAMU disrupted Baylor's rhythm - TAMU kept Odyssey Sims off the free throw line almost entirely, limiting her to just two attempts. That's a vast difference between her first three meetings with Baylor in which she had 8, 14, and 3 attempts (in order). Although there obviously isn't much difference between her third and fourth performances, that her 2 attempts in the Elite Eight were paired with only 6 field goal attempts is significant: her usage percentage of 11% is a level that Ken Pomeroy considers "nearly invisible".
So despite having a relatively efficient game as a distributor - an assist ratio of 31.05% compared to a turnover ratio of 15.52% for a pure point rating of 1.66 - Baylor needed her scoring and she was a non-factor. With Sims being a non-factor, senior Melissa Jones as well as sophomores Jordan Madden and Destiny Williams took on a greater than average responsibility for ball handling. The result: turnover percentages of 23.29%, 60%, and 45.04% respectively.
While we normally judge a disruptive defense in terms of team turnovers, what we saw against Baylor was a slightly more complex narrative: TAMU forced Baylor out of their normal ball handling and shooting patterns and although their team turnover percentage wasn't that high, by changing those patterns they turned Baylor into a significantly less efficient team.
Meanwhile, Colson actually had one of her better offensive games against Baylor: if you can excuse those five missed 3-point attempts, she had a 2-point percentage of 66.66% and a free throw rate of 45.45%, both well above her averages. It was a much more aggressive than usual performance for her overall, even if she was less efficient as a distributor. But that's what TAMU needed from their guards to beat Baylor.
"I think guard play for us was crucial in this game," said Sydney Carter, who had a game-high 22 points. "Definitely playing against a team like Baylor with having Griner inside and being such a big presence you're going to have to have outside shots to fall. So I'm glad they were falling for me today."
Statistical MVP: Carter's team-high free throw rate was as big as her shooting
The consistent pattern in non-UConn teams that have played well against Baylor is an attacking mindset from the guards rather than being scared of that big 6-foot-8 player in the middle of the paint for Baylor and continuing to attack the rim.
"We wanted Adaora to hit those mid-range jumpers," said Blair. "She missed a wide-open layup I know. If you had Brittney Griner running at you, you probably would miss it too. We missed about four of those wide open layups."
So for all the attention given to Sydney Carter's shooting - which was outstanding with a team-high true shooting percentage of 58.01% - Carter's team-high free throw rate of 60% was equally important in beating Baylor because it means this wasn't a team solely settling for jumpers. And although the fact that TAMU's free throw rate of 29.41% was its highest of this season series definitely matters, again what might have mattered more was where those free throws were coming from.
TAMU's highest free throw rate of 29.7% in their first meeting was only marginally better than their Elite Eight performance, but 6 of those 19 attempts came from Adams. In their previous three meetings, Carter had 2 free throw attempts total. In the Elite Eight game, Carter had nine attempts. That Carter, Colson, and Tyra White (6 attempts) combined for all 20 of TAMU's attempt is thus a good thing in that it shows the type of consistent aggression needed despite Griner's presence.
The result was what people have already pointed out elsewhere without the advanced stats, although the numbers are so staggering that they bear repeating: Carter and Colson combined for 81% of the team's overall statistical production. And the value of their aggression both defensively and offensively is probably not even measurable statistically.
Baylor Statistical MVP: Jones remains a productive "glue player" in her final game
People often say that what Jones brings to a team is not measurable by stats, but what her more advanced numbers say is the opposite: she makes so many of the right decisions, the she generally makes few mistakes and balances out whatever she does to hurt the team with key decisions that help. Against Baylor, that was having a team-high 65.78% true shooting percentage and 13 points behind Griner's team-high 20. Yet perhaps even more valuable in a game where rebounding did become a factor is that Jones had 3 offensive rebounds for a team-high 11.11%. While that's good for her, it's a victory for TAMU - it means that they did an outstanding job of keeping Baylor from second chance points.
That Jones was held without an assist while leading the team in rebounding is just further evidence of what an outstanding job TAMU did of taking Baylor almost entirely out of their game. It was by far Baylor's least efficient game statistically, while being TAMU's best and it was just a matter of TAMU putting together all the things they had done previously at different times into one coherent package.