With UConn women facing off against Baylor in NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, a Final Four atmosphere is arriving a week early

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Dom Amore, Hartford Courant
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The Final Four is arriving a week early this year. Baylor, that perennial championship contender forged in coach Kim Mulkey’s uncompromising image, will be UConn’s formidable obstacle in an Elite Eight game.

Don’t let the round or the seeding fool you. This is Baylor, winner of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the most recent one played, and all that goes with it.

“Explain to me how they’re a No. 2 seed,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “These things happen, I know, but I think they deserve to be a No.1 seed if you look around the rest of the tournament. How we ended up in the same region, that’s even more shocking, given how good they are.”

Baylor is 28-2 and, after its overtime victory over Michigan on Saturday, takes a 20-game winning streak into this regional final against No.1 seed UConn (27-1), pitting two of the most successful programs in women’s basketball Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

“I wish it was for the national championship and not for the chance to get to the Final Four,” Mulkey said, “because I think both programs are elite and it’s a shame somebody has to lose. COVID cost us the opportunity to play six games this year, and four of those six games were against ranked opponents, so the as the committee sat there, the committee didn’t have top-50 wins or how many ranked teams you played or all that stuff you normally look at. So we haven’t complained one bit. You’ve just got to go play ‘em all, and eventually you’re going to have to play ‘em all to win it all anyway. Only one team leaves the NCAA Tournament happy.”

One of the games canceled when Mulkey tested positive for COVID-19, 10 days after exposure, was a Jan. 7 matchup with UConn at Waco, Texas, so the Bears and Huskies, who have developed a spirited out-of-conference rivalry, have not met since Jan. 9, 2020, a 74-58 Baylor win at the XL Center. Pre-pandemic, it seems like eons ago and UConn does, indeed, have a much different team with the infusion of freshmen like Paige Buckers and Aaliyah Edwards.

“We’ve seen some of their returning players,” Mulkey said, “but obviously they have new players, and those new players play with a sense of confidence and play above their age and fit in quickly.”

The Bears have the more experienced team, but many players are in more prominent roles now than they were a year or two ago. Edwards, joining Olivia Nelson-Ododa, could give UConn a better chance to counteract Baylor’s inside game than was the case last time. This will be the ninth meeting between the programs, and the first eight were split.

“We’re starting from scratch,” said Baylor’s Moon Ursin, who scored 20 points, including the game-sealing bucket against Michigan. “New players are going to be out on the floor. This is a completely different atmosphere. We keep it in the back of our minds. We’ve been here before. We’ve played this team before, but it’s a different dynamic, a different group of girls, a different platform.”

Mulkey, 58, with her 631-103 record and three championships across 21 seasons, hasn’t changed her formula. Much like UConn, it starts with defense and rebounding, with scoring following naturally. Her current team has four players scoring in double figures, led by NaLyssa Smith (18.2 points per game, 24 vs. Michigan), but has out-rebounded opponents 48.7-29., and held opponents to 32.5 percent from the field, 27.1 percent on 3-pointers. DiDi Richards, a 6-foot-2 guard, was the national defensive player of the year in 2019-20.

“If you take away the talent on the floor and let’s talk about what each program does from a basketball standpoint: defense, and then you add rebounding,” Mulkey said. “… Field-goal percentage defense, that was a big thing that was ingrained in me as a player, and we have been up there at the leaderboard in that area because guys, I don’t care how talented you are, there are going to come games when you meet somebody that’s as talented as you and you may not be able to score the ball as easily. And so the emphasis on defense with both programs is bought into by the players that come into each program.”

Only UConn (11) and Tennessee (eight) have won more titles than Baylor. Mulkey, as a coach, has always reminded Auriemma of the Kim Mulkey he saw as a 5-4 point guard at Louisiana Tech, where she helped win the first NCAA Tournament in 1982, and her teams reflect it, this one no exception.

“Kim, the coach, is an extension of Kim, the player,” Auriemma said. “She coaches exactly the way she played. She’s tough; she’s competitive; she’s driven. There’s an intensity-level about her. She multitasks; she coaches; she officiates; she does everything on the sideline with a passion. And most of all, it’s been consistent. She’s been true to who she is, and her teams have been consistent. Each year they have the same formula. The best thing you can say about a coach is they’re true to their personality, they believe in a certain way of playing and coaching and they stay with it.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.