TAMPA, Fla. — It was the ultimate clash of styles.
Oregon had the most exciting player on the floor in Sabrina Ionescu, a guard so multitalented that no less than the Warriors’ Stephen Curry labeled her “a legend in her own right.”
Baylor, with its defense-first style and a frontcourt of 6-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Lauren Cox, is more steamroller than finesse.
Well, it’s going to be the old-school steamroller in the NCAA title game Sunday. Baylor defeated Oregon, 72-67, in a women’s NCAA Tournament national semifinal Friday night at Amalie Arena.
The Bears (36-1) will attempt to win their third national title when they face Notre Dame, which defeated Connecticut in the other semifinal.
Baylor beat Oregon (33-5) by holding one of the most exciting offenses in the game to 1-for-13 shooting down the stretch.
Brown had 22 points and seven rebounds. Cox had 21 points, including two big free throws with 18 seconds left, and 11 rebounds.
Ionescu, the career leader in NCAA triple-doubles for both men and women, had 18 points, six assists and four rebounds. The Ward Trophy winner as the top player in the nation, she could have played her last college game, as she is old enough to declare for the WNBA Draft despite being a junior. Many have projected her to be the top pick.
Overall top seed Baylor entered having lost only one game, falling to Stanford, 68-63, on Dec. 15. The Bears had zero competition in the tournament, with their closest contest a 93-68 win over South Carolina in the third round.
Still, coach Kim Mulkey knew her team was going to have its hands full trying to contain Ionescu.
“I will tell you that it all starts with Sabrina,” Mulkey said Thursday. “What a talent. What a joy to watch — if you’re not having to play against her. She’s got that oomph in her. She certainly is not the only great player on that team, but it starts and stops with her. She makes everybody around her better.”
Of the four coaches at the Final Four, only Oregon’s Kelly Graves had never been on this stage. In fact, Graves is the only coach not to have won a national title. The other three coaches — Mulkey, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and UConn’s Geno Auriemma — have 15 national titles.
“You could say I’m the new kid on the block, so to speak,” Graves said with a laugh at his media conference Thursday.
A new kid who has been knocking on the door for several seasons. Graves lost to McGraw and Auriemma in the last two tournaments. In 2017, the Huskies crushed Oregon, 90-52, in the Elite Eight. Last year, the Irish defeated the Ducks, 84-74, in the same round before going on to win the national title.
Graves, who was hired five seasons ago, put together a top-ranked recruiting class in 2016, which was headlined by the signing of Ionescu. She was just named Pac 12 player of the year for the second straight season and has led Oregon to the tournament in all three of her seasons.
Graves’ team finally got past the Elite Eight this year by beating Mississippi State, 88-84.
“I’m probably the least surprised person in America that Oregon is here,” Auriemma said before Friday’s game. “I told him, the way he’s done it and how quickly he’s done it . . . I just think it is really cool and really impressive.”