The first game of the 2019 Final Four did not disappoint.
After a hard fought, back-and-forth contest, the Baylor Bears snuck past the Oregon Ducks, 72-67 to clinch their first trip to the championship game since 2012. Their No. 1 ranked field goal defense stepped up in a big way down the stretch, holding Oregon to just 1-of-13 shooting and three points over the final six minutes.
Baylor's star frontcourt stepped up as well, as Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox combined for 43 points and 18 rebounds on 18-of-26 from the field. On Oregon's end, their All-American Sabrina Ionescu put in 18 points, but had a poor shooting night for the field.
Here are a few takeaways from Baylor's victory.
Didi Richards' defense on Ionescu key
Sabrina Ionescu was one of the best players in college basketball this season, and will likely be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft next week if she decides to leave school early. In the tournament, there was probably no single player you'd rather have on your team, due both to her skillset and competitiveness.
But on Friday night, she scored just 18 points on 6-of-24 shooting, and turned the ball over three times. That was due in large part to the excellent defense of Didi Richards. The sophomore isn't usually much of an offensive threat -- though she did step up and score 15 points in this game, eight more than her season average -- but she used her 6-foot-1 frame to bother and frustrate Ionescu all game long.
Though Ionescu got hot for a bit in the second quarter, when she scored 12 of her 18 points, the open looks for the star guard were few and far between. In the fourth quarter, Ionescu didn't score at all.
Baylor's other big steps up
While Lauren Cox doesn't get as much attention as her frontcourt partner Kalani Brown, that's a matter of Brown's greatness rather than Cox's ability. And the third-team All-American showed off that ability on Friday night with a fantastic performance. Often working out of the high post while Brown demanded multiple defenders down low, Cox made smart decisions all night long.
Whether it was putting the ball on the deck to create a shot for herself, or knowing when to dump the ball down into Brown, Cox was composed and provided a steady presence among Oregon's swarming defense, which packed the paint. While Ionescu is the triple-double queen, it was Cox who almost got one in this game, finishing with 21 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists. If that wasn't enough, she added three blocks on the defensive end -- more than Oregon's entire team. Plus, she hit two clutch free throws in the final minute to help seal the victory.
Ducks' 3-point shooting not quite enough
Oregon was one of the best offensive teams in the country this season thanks in large part to their excellent 3-point shooting. They had five players who shot at least 36 percent from three-point range, and as a team, they made over 41 percent of their attempts.
Heading into Friday night's game, the main question everyone was asking was whether or not Oregon's 3-point attack would be enough to offset Baylor's inside game. In the end, the answer proved to be no. The Ducks had a pretty solid shooting night from outside, hitting 12-of-32 attempts, but it just wasn't enough. Especially since they couldn't get any of them to go down the stretch. They went just 2-of-8 from outside in the fourth quarter, amidst a brutal 1-of-13 stretch to close the game.