TAMPA, Fla. – Late last week, the floor of Amalie Arena was transformed from an ice rink, home to the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, to the court of the NCAA Final Four. Following a thrilling defeat of No. 1-seed Mississippi State on Sunday, No. 2-seed Oregon women’s basketball is preparing to play on that court in its first-ever Final Four on Friday night against No. 1-seed Baylor.
While the Ducks are lacing up for their first Final Four, the Lady Bears are here for their fourth, including 2005 and 2012 championship titles, the last time the Lady Bears advanced to the Final Four.
That doesn’t mean Baylor isn’t primed for this weekend. Mulkey has led Baylor to all four of the team’s national final and semifinal runs, and this season, she has coached the Lady Bears to the top of the AP Poll since late January.
And in the tournament thus far, Baylor has won each game by at least 25 points, averaging a 38-point win margin in its four NCAA Tournament games. In its all-time series against Oregon, Baylor has won all three of the matchups.
The Lady Bears boast two All-American posts in 6-foot-4 junior Lauren Cox and 6-foot-7 senior Kalani Brown. Against Iowa in the Elite Eight, they scored 36 of Baylor’s 85 points, grabbed a combined 18 rebounds and earned a combined five blocks.
Oregon’s 6-foot-4 junior post, Ruthy Hebard, will be critical if the Ducks are going to upset Baylor and advance to Sunday night’s final.
“She's got her work cut out for her, whether she's guarding Cox or Brown or whomever inside. They're tremendous players — All-Americans,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “She's just going to have to suck it up and do it like she's been doing.”
Against Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan in the Elite Eight, Hebard scored 14 points and grabbed just five rebounds. In the preseason, the Ducks hosted the Bulldogs in Eugene where Hebard held McCowan to just five points, and on Sunday, she netted 19 points against Hebard. The physicality of the matchup prepared Oregon’s post for Baylor’s double post.
“I think Sunday's game got me ready, got me physical, in the mindset," she said. "I'm excited to take on Kalani.”
The Ducks and Hebard will look to bench forwards, senior Oti Gildon and redshirt-sophomore Lydia Giomi, to help control Baylor’s Brown and Cox and create scoring options on offense.
“We’ve seen the double team on Ruthy,” Giomi said. “People have tried to stop our pick-and-roll. We’ve done a really good job at, ‘Ok we see this. Let’s do this instead.’ We’ve always adapted to what the defense gives us.”
Baylor’s double-post defense will need to adapt to Oregon’s four-out offense, forcing Cox to guard Oregon’s 3-point shooters on the perimeter, but the forward is up for the task.
“I think [Cox is] one of the best defenders at any position,” Mulkey said. “She can defend any position on the floor if I asked her to.”
In graduate guard Chloe Jackson, the Lady Bears have a first-time point guard after Mulkey switched her to point-guard earlier this season. Compared to Oregon’s two point-guard backcourt in shooting-guard Ionescu and senior true-point-guard Matie Cazorla, the Ducks have Baylor beat in the backcourt.
“It all starts with [Ionescu]. What a talent. What a joy to watch, if you're not having to play against her,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “She's got that 'umph' in her. She'll get the ball to them in spots where it makes them look good.”
Beyond the arc, the Ducks outshoot Baylor over 10 percent, 41.7 to 31.4 percent, but under the glass, Baylor outrebounds Oregon by an average of 10 boards a night, 47.6 to 37.9.
Oregon and Baylor play at 4 p.m. PT on Friday night with a National Championship appearance on the line.
Follow Sierra Webster on Twitter @WebsterSierraE.