The No. 6 Baylor Lady Bears had played 12 games entering last night’s battle with the No. 1 UConn Huskies, but last night had the feel of a season opener for the defending NCAA Tournament champs.
Baylor had solid wins in their pocket (over the South Florida Bulls and Indiana Hoosiers) but neither of those tests was as difficult as UConn promised to be, and the Lady Bears weren’t the best versions of themselves in those games. With Lauren Cox playing nearly 100 percent healthy, transfer Te’a Cooper taking the team to another level and NaLyssa Smith stepping up in the frontcourt, the Lady Bears found their stride — creating a perfect storm to UConn’s detriment.
Cox was phenomenal on defense, holding UConn’s star center Olivia Nelson-Ododa scoreless on 0-of-8 shooting from the field. Cooper added six rebounds and five assists (tied with Didi Richards for a game high) to her game-high 27 points. Smith notched a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double. Cox scored 16 points, including a 2-of-4 effort from beyond the arc, as the Lady Bears (12-1, 1-0) took down UConn (12-1, 3-0) by a score of 74-58 in Hartford, Connecticut.
The Huskies had a cold shooting start, but that didn’t last long. Megan Walker stepped her game up, going 2-of-4 from 3-point range in the first quarter to give UConn an 18-13 lead at the conclusion of the opening frame.
Cox’s second 3-pointer came at the 7:24-minute mark in the second quarter and tied the game at 21. Baylor went led by as many as eight points in the second quarter, but Walker scored six-straight points in a 9-0 run that gave the Huskies a 34-33 lead. If not for Cooper’s layup with 27 seconds left in the period, the Lady Bears would have trailed at the break.
UConn never held a lead in the third quarter, but they Huskies did tie the game up twice. A basket from Cox with 1:52 left in the third quarter gave Baylor another eight-point lead. UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield made a clutch 3-pointer that cut the lead to three points heading into the fourth.
When the Lady Bears pulled away in the fourth, they pulled away for good. Cooper was 7-of-7 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.
Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox were a lethal duo in the paint last season. The big question coming into this season was whether Baylor could win with just Cox and not Brown, who was lost to graduation and the WNBA. Cox missed eight games due to a foot injury and the Lady Bears hadn’t faced much elite competition, which left the question open until last night. The resounding answer against a UConn team that is starting to find its footing again was yes.
It won’t be exactly the same as last year, though. Cooper demonstrated how valuable she is and a lot of the scoring load will shift to the perimeter if she continues to play this way. Last night, the former South Carolina Gamecock was 4-of-11 from distance.
Aside from a 3-pointer from Ana Makurat, all of UConn’s scoring came from Walker, Dangerfield and Christyn Williams, the last of whom led the team with 21 points and nine rebounds. Nelson-Ododa’s inability to put points up hurt the Huskies, and so did the lowly three bench points.
UConn will be back in Hartford to host the Houston Cougars on Saturday, Jan. 11, at 1 p.m. (ESPN3/Huskies All-Access)
Baylor returns home to host the Oklahoma State Cowgirls on Sunday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m. (ESPNU/Baylor All-Access)