March 28, 2021 

Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith refuses to miss — or go home

After beating Michigan, an Elite 8 matchup with UConn awaits

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Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith (#1) raises her hand as teammates celebrate behind her during a Sweet Sixteen game against Michigan on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The Baylor Lady Bears survived.

They had to overcome a 3-for-10 shooting performance from deep, missed opportunities to pull ahead, and a matchup against a team that finally took them to work on the glass, but they did it.

On the back of All-American forward NaLyssa Smith, the Lady Bears found a way to string together enough gutsy plays down the stretch as they hung in and defeated Michigan 78-75 in overtime.

“I mean, if it doesn’t show today that we want to win the whole thing, then I don’t know what to tell y’all,” Smith said. “But this team just gave it their all today. I mean, this is a team, I knew we were capable of doing. We finally get to put it on display.”

Smith played one of the best games not just of this tournament, but of any tournament. She shot 11-for-11 from the field and showed a complete scoring package — runners, Eurosteps, putbacks and, of course, a 3-pointer + air guitar combo.

Almost none of her buckets came easily. Michigan was many different things in this tournament, but “ready to go home” was not one of them.

“Kim [Barnes Arico], their coach, is one of my favorite people in coaching,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “I want to compliment her and her team. It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to play so tough. I thought they were just tough. I thought they were physical. They kept us from going to the offensive boards.”

The Lady Bears never trailed in regulation, yet this contest never looked like a blowout. Michigan hung within a few possessions for most of regulation and stepped up in the fourth quarter, outscoring Baylor 23-16.

The Lady Bears’ lack of shooting hasn’t hurt them since January’s loss to Iowa State. They take over in every other facet of the game — they’ve been a powerhouse on the glass, in transition, and on the defensive end of the floor. 

But Michigan had other ideas. No team has taken it to Baylor on the glass quite like the Wolverines, who lost the rebounding battle by just five boards. Michigan fired off 3-pointers at a better clip as well, knocking down six of its final 10 attempts from outside.

After Michigan forward Naz Hillmon hit a game-tying layup with 17 seconds left, the ball was in Baylor’s court. Many expected the Lady Bears to turn to their star who couldn’t miss, but Mulkey said that Smith wanted guard Moon Ursin to take the final shot.

Ursin, Baylor’s rock all season, created space for herself off the dribble with time winding down but couldn’t connect on her pull-up from the free-throw line.

But Baylor got it done in overtime, turning to its stars again and fiending for the ball on the glass.

The Lady Bears aren’t worried about depth in the Elite 8. Lest we forget, Baylor has enough in the tank outside of Smith.

“It just shows how deep the roster goes, knowing that everybody can score the ball,” Smith said. “If I’m not hot, then Moon is going to be hot. If Moon is not hot, DiJonai [Carrington] is going to be hot. Or all three of us are going to be hot at the same time. It just shows you how deep our roster is.”

Baylor’s Moon Ursin (#12) and NaLyssa Smith (#1) react in the second half of a Sweet Sixteen game against Michigan on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Ursin finished with 20 points and got wherever she wanted against Michigan (outside of that one shot at the end of regulation). Carrington struggled for stretches of the contest but came through when it mattered. The senior transfer hit three of the biggest shots of the game down the stretch, including poking two balls free in transition late and draining two go-ahead shots in overtime.

And there are others who will step up. Guard DiDi Richards shot 1-for-9 from the field, but she’s still one of the best perimeter defenders in the country and can suffocate any opposing guard in the country — yes, that includes UConn’s Paige Bueckers.

Others will have to come through, too. Center Queen Egbo, who had just seven points against Michigan, can throttle bigs who give her an inch inside. Forward Caitlin Bickle found herself in foul trouble, but she picked up a pair of charges and buckets (something she seems to do in every game at this point).

Looking ahead, Baylor will have its hands full with a UConn team that can replicate many of Michigan’s strengths without the same shortcomings.

“I’m certainly not going to out-coach Geno,” Mulkey said. “So our players, they better compete and try to outplay his players.”

Bueckers awaits. Evina Westbrook awaits. Christyn Williams awaits.

The Elite 8 awaits.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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