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Preview: No. 1 UConn travels to Waco to take on No. 8 Baylor

Will UConn’s defense be able to shut down Baylor’s spread offense?

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Albany Regional-South Carolina vs Connecticut
Crystal Dangerfield (team-high 19 points) and Napheesa Collier (10 points, 11 rebounds) had the most success against Baylor in 2016.
Photo by: Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

Following its 2016 national championship, UConn headed into 2016-17 with momentum. Within a couple weeks’ time, Baylor traveled to Storrs, where two completely different-looking rosters needed all four quarters to settle on a winner. In this contest, only two Baylor Bears — Alexis Jones and Kristy Wallace — scored in double figures. UConn, meanwhile, used turnovers (scoring 23 points off of them) and its bench (22 points) to power through a 72-61 win.

Statistically speaking, this is Baylor’s game, seeing as it leads in assists per game (23.6), rebounds per game (49.1) and opponent field goal percentage (30.8 percent). There are some parallels, however, as both teams are in the top 10 in fewest fouls committed, defensive rebounds per game and points scored per game.

Per individual, each team has a share of playmakers. Baylor, for instance, has a 6-foot-7 threat in Kalani Brown (who leads the team in field goal percentage at 61.5 percent), a glass enforcer in NaLyssa Smith (66 rebounds) and a ball distributor in Chloe Jackson (53 assists). For UConn, Katie Lou Samuelson is the gunslinger (leads the team with 30 threes), Napheesa Collier is the defense’s identity (79 defensive rebounds) and Crystal Dangerfield is the bank (57 assists).

Three ingredients for a UConn win

Defense in the first half is mandatory

If the Huskies want to limit Baylor’s production, then restricting its offense to 24 or 25 points in the first half is step one.

In its games against Arizona State and Stanford, Baylor scored only 24 points in the first half — both season-lows. It’s also those same games that were decided by 10 or fewer points, which is a blueprint for UConn to follow.

The fewest points allowed to a ranked opponent by UConn’s first-half defense was back on Nov. 28, when DePaul scored 25 points. And even though they allowed 41 points in the first half to Notre Dame, the Huskies did still pull away with an 89-71 win. On average, though, UConn is allowing 30 points in the first half — something the South Dakota State Jackrabbits did against Baylor, yet they managed to lose by only 14.

UConn has experience playing Grade-A offenses

Unlike Baylor, UConn has been battle-tested by high-scoring offenses from Notre Dame, Seton Hall and DePaul.

For the most part, Baylor’s schedule has been a cake walk. The Bears have even scored over 90 points over 5 games, but at the expense of what competition? It’s comparable to the University of Alabama’s football program, who notched 40 points at the mercy of 9 opponents in 2018. Truthfully, only one of them — Auburn — had the best chance of upsetting the Crimson Tide.

UConn, on the other hand, knows what it’s like to be in the face of adversity in a young season. In fact, the road to No. 1 wasn’t just presented on a silver platter, as Notre Dame stood in the way of that achievement. After that game, three different Huskies led in three different categories — Christyn Williams in points (28), Napheesa Collier in rebounds (15) and Katie Lou Samuelson in assists (6).

Baylor’s not all that great at defending threes

Because of its size inside (4 players over 6-foot-2), Baylor tends to leave the perimeter untouched.

Of their previous three games, the Bears have allowed 30 threes over 68 attempts (44.1 percent). Most surprisingly, Morehead State cashed in on threes, shooting 12-for-30, despite a loss of almost 40 points. Stanford, who upset Baylor, 68-63, relied on a similar stat line, especially in the first half (20 three-point attempts).

UConn’s previous three games have been less eventful in terms of triples. Since their game against Seton Hall on Dec. 8, the Huskies have shot only 8-for-30 between Oklahoma and Cal. Overall, UConn has converted 39 percent of their threes, which, compared to the national average among Division I women’s basketball, isn’t much.

Nonetheless, three-point efforts from Samuelson, Crystal Dangerfield, Megan Walker and Christyn Williams (combined for 4-for-17 against Notre Dame) will need to counteract the five Baylor players that average higher than 56 percent in field goal shooting.

Game information

No. 1 UConn Huskies (11-0) at No. 8 Baylor Bears (9-1)

When: Thursday, Jan. 3 at 9 p.m. ET

Where: Ferrell Center, Waco, TX

How to tune in: ESPN, 97-9 ESPN

Injury report: None