To take down Brittney Griner and seemingly invincible Baylor, Louisville played a carefree offense, an unconventional defense and got one fearless final play against one of women’s basketball’s greatest players ever.
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Monique Reid made two free throws after getting fouled by Griner on a desperation drive with 2.6 seconds left, lifting the fifth-seeded Cardinals to an 82-81 victory and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament.
”It’s an amazing feeling,” said Reid, a 69 percent foul shooter. ”It was great that I could actually hit those clutch free throws. I just wanted to get on top of a building and scream!”
Considered a lock for the Final Four – and prohibitive favorites to win a second straight championship – Griner and her Lady Bears (34-2) had won 32 straight games – and 74 of 75, including last season’s unprecedented 40-0 run to the championship.
But the 6-foot-8 star didn’t make a basket until the second half, then committed the foul that gave Louisville a chance to win.
”I saw Griner coming at me and I was like, `I’m going to have to get past her.’ I tried to make the layup and she took my head off,” Reid said.
Louisville will play Tennessee in the regional final on Tuesday night for a berth in the Final Four. The Cardinals are trying to get back for the first time since losing in the 2009 title game.
Odyssey Sims scored 29 points, including two free throws with 9.1 seconds to go that gave Baylor its only lead at 81-80. Sims had one more chance to save the season, but she was off-target and late on a desperation heave.
Sims dropped to the floor after her miss, pulling her jersey over her face and kicking her legs as she lay flat on her back. Griner squatted near her and slapped the floor with both hands before pulling Sims up to her feet.
It was a stunning end of a remarkable college career for Griner, the second-highest scoring player in NCAA history. She also holds the career records for blocks and dunks.
”I’m just sad,” Griner said. ”I didn’t do what I needed to do to get my team to the Elite Eight and just disappointment in myself.”
Griner, who had averaged 33 points in Baylor’s first two games in the tournament, didn’t make a basket until she converted a putback with 15:20 left in the second half. She wound up with 14 points and 10 rebounds, making only four of her 10 shots and being a relative non-factor for her considerable stature.
Louisville surrounded Griner as she has been most of her career, using a zone defense Louisville coach Jeff Walz called the ”claw and one.”
He put one player in front of Griner and another behind her, and often another one in the vicinity.
”I think I could smell what toothpaste she used,” Antonita Slaughter said. ”I was in her face the whole time with my hands up.”
Unusually, Griner’s teammates were unable to hit outside shots and relieve the pressure.
Before the game, Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey had said she didn’t know what defense the Cardinals run and even Louisville’s players admitted to being confused often.
”Most of the time we just scramble and it works out for us,” Slaughter said.
The Cardinals went 16 for 25 from 3-point range, tying the NCAA tournament mark for 3-pointers reached by four other teams and making the most ever in the regional semifinals or beyond.
Louisville had been shooting just 31 percent on 3-pointers. Slaughter hit seven 3-pointers for 21 points and Shoni Schimmel had five 3s and 22 points as the Cardinals scored 11 more points than any other Baylor opponent this season.
”Our goal was to score, score and score. I told our kids if we had to take 40 to 50 3s we would,” Walz said. ”I don’t know if we could go out there right now 5-on-0 and go 16 of 25, but we did it in the biggest game of the year for us and now we’re going to hopefully keep our momentum going and see what we can do on Tuesday.”
The win made it quite a day for the school – hours earlier, the men’s team from Louisville beat Duke 85-63 to reach the Final Four. Walz spoke to the team before the game about the gruesome leg injury suffered by Kevin Ware in the men’s game, telling them that basketball is still a game.
Afterward, Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant joined the team’s celebration.
”I told our kids in the locker room before the game, we’ve got to turn this thing into a street ball game. You’ve got to drive and kick for 3s and try to make it fun. There was no pressure on us,” Walz said.
”We came out and did that, and I’m honored to coach this group of young ladies.”
The Lady Bears had been practically invincible for the past four months since losing to Stanford on Nov. 16. Baylor, which went 40-0 last season, had won the next 32 straight games mostly by double digits.
It’s no surprise that the Louisville women were a 24-point underdog to Baylor in Las Vegas casinos, according to gambling expert R.J. Bell of Pregame.com. Odds on Louisville to win outright were 75-1, paying $7,500 on a $100 wager, Bell said.
Instead, Louisville led by as much as 19 and was up 74-57 with 7:42 to play.
It was Sims who eventually led Baylor’s attempted comeback, after the Cardinals’ run of 3-pointers finally came to an end.
Sims hit a pair of free throws and then got a steal in the backcourt for a layup that got Baylor back within a dozen, and the Lady Bears put together a 19-4 run to get within striking distance in the final 2 minutes.
Walz was called for a technical foul for arguing after he watched a scoreboard replay of an offensive foul whistled against Bria Smith, with a Baylor defender sliding under her after she took off.
Sims hit the resulting free throws and then a runner to get the Lady Bears within 78-76 with 1:49 to play.
She then answered Megan Deines’ layup off a baseline inbounds play with a 3-pointer to cut it to one with 35.8 seconds left. She then hit two free throws to put Baylor ahead after Jude Schimmel fumbled an inbounds pass under her own basket, Griner picked it up and passed it to Sims.
The Lady Bears still couldn’t close it out.
”It’s a tough way to lose,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. ”It’s hard to lose when it’s your last game, but it’s even harder the way that game ended. Makes it a little tougher.”
Mulkey criticized the game officials, saying she didn’t care if she got fined, even after Louisville was called for 23 fouls compared to 14 for the Lady Bears.
The Cardinals also had three starters foul out. Griner said she thought she got all ball on Reid’s final drive.
”I thought the game started out way too physical, way too physical,” Mulkey said. ”I thought that all three of them, if they go past this round of officiating, it will be sad for the game.”
Walz had his own complaints, saying he was dumbfounded at the fifth foul calls that disqualified two of his starters. In all, three Cardinals fouled out.
”I was just thankful on that last drive when Monique Reid went in for the layup,” Walz said. ”It was a late whistle, but I was sure glad he called it because she got clobbered.”