Baylor braces for everyone’s best shot in NCAA regional
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Everybody’s trying to beat Baylor, and the Bears have learned to embrace that attention.
The No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA women’s Tournament enters the Greensboro Regional semifinals on a Division I-best 25-game winning streak and as the favorite to reach its first Final Four since its unbeaten national title run in 2012.
Trying this weekend to prevent that coronation are South Carolina, Iowa and North Carolina State.
“After a while, you get used to it — you expect it now,” Baylor center Kalani Brown said Friday. “You’re expecting to get everybody’s best shot. (Being ranked) No. 1 just kind of made it a little bit worse — but better at the same time.”
Baylor (33-1) faces the fourth-seeded Gamecocks (23-9) in a semifinal Saturday after the second-seeded Hawkeyes (28-6) take on third-seeded N.C. State (28-5).
The Bears usurped perennial power Connecticut as the team to beat — for the time being, anyway — by knocking off the then-top-ranked Huskies 68-57 on Jan. 3.
That came early during the overwhelming three-month run through the schedule that carried them to No. 1 in the national rankings and included an 18-0 finish in Big 12 play, an eighth conference tournament title in nine years and two NCAA Tournament victories by an average of 48 points.
Now the Bears — in the Sweet 16 for the 11th straight year — want to prove they can get back to the third weekend of the tournament.
Since they won the national title seven years ago, they’ve lost four times in the Elite Eight and twice in the regional semifinals — including last year to Oregon State.
Iowa center Megan Gustafson — who could earn a shot at the Bears on Monday night — says the tournament is “anyone’s game” even though only one team has managed to beat Baylor. Stanford did it on Dec. 15.
“Baylor, obviously, is a really great team,” Gustafson said. “We’re focusing on N.C. State right now and that’s our sole focus. And if we keep going, maybe we’ll run into them. Maybe we won’t.”
Some other subplots to watch during the Greensboro regional semifinals:
The NCAA Tournament sent Baylor to the state of North Carolina for the third time since 2007. In both of the previous trips here, the Bears’ tournament run ended. Both losses came in Raleigh in games hosted by N.C. State.
The Wolfpack beat the Bears in the second round in 2007 — during the inspirational Kay Yow-led run to the Sweet 16 — and Louisville knocked them out two years later in the Raleigh Regional semifinals.
Gustafson — the Big Ten player of the year who leads the nation in scoring (28.0 ppg) and shooting rate (70.1 percent) and is second in rebounding (13.5 rpg) — shapes up as the biggest star of the regional . She has 32 double-doubles, one shy of matching the NCAA’s single-season record, and the only teams to hold her to single-digit rebounding were Florida State and Michigan.
Coach Lisa Bluder says opponents have thrown all sorts of defenses at her. “You name it, we’ve seen it,” she said. “Everybody’s tried all kinds of stuff. Has it worked? She’s shooting 70 percent and averaging 28 points. I don’t think a whole lot has worked, but we’ve seen everything.”
N.C. State freshman Elissa Cunane — who will likely match up with Gustafson — grew up about 15 miles north of the Greensboro Coliseum in Summerfield. She averaged 21 points and nine rebounds in two Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament games earlier this month here. Coach Wes Moore says he hopes the familiarity “gives you a little bit of a comfort zone.”
The Gamecocks’ streak of Sweet 16s isn’t quite as long as Baylor’s (six years) but they have advanced to the Elite Eight three times in the previous four seasons. That run started in Greensboro, with South Carolina advancing to the Final Four the previous time this city hosted a regional in 2015.