March 30, 2021 

The players who got Baylor here, and what Mulkey’s comments took away

“I personally don't see it as a controversial call,” Carrington said of the referees' no-call on the foul

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DiJonai Carrington rises up in the closing seconds against UConn. (Photo via Chris Jones)

Everything that cost Baylor

Well, you don’t make 13 straight Final Fours without at least a couple of things going your way.

Baylor had the opportunity to end UConn’s notorious Final Four streak and start a Championship streak of its own. Then, toward the end of the third quarter, Baylor senior guard DiDi Richards grimaced.

Her hamstring injury gave the Huskies — then facing a 10-point deficit — space to capitalize. And that’s exactly what they did. With Richards effectively missing the rest of the contest (spare for a brief return before Baylor realized she couldn’t move), UConn surged on a 19-0 run.

But, for as finished as this contest looked, the Huskies lead was far from insurmountable. Baylor came rushing back in the closing minutes and held possession after UConn’s missed opportunities. Down 1 with less than 10 seconds left on the clock, DiJonai Carrington drove left to the baseline and rose up for a contested, fadeaway shot. Her probable game-winner came crashing down, as UConn defenders made contact with the ball, her face, and her elbow. The referees were silent their whistles — a common theme during the physical contest — and UConn’s legendary streak stumbled into another day.

“I personally don’t see it as a controversial call,” Carrington said of the referees’ no-call on the foul. “I’ve already seen the replay and one girl fouled me in my face and one girl fouled me on my arm so, at that point, you can’t do anything else. We drew up a play, Lyss got fouled posting up and I got fouled driving. So nothing that we can really do about that situation in particular.”

Satou Sabally, Swin Cash, LeBron James, and others all believed it was a foul.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma aired his own thoughts.

Baylor can’t change the past. But we’re likely having a different conversation if Carrington gets to the line. We’re having a different conversation if the committee places Baylor in another region. And we’re having a very different conversation if Richards hamstring doesn’t give way. 

SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 29: Baylor takes on UConn in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 29, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Don’t forget these players’ stories

Baylor is one of the best-constructed basketball programs in the country. When you’re taught how to play basketball, you’re taught to do what Baylor does. 

It isn’t sexy. 

Everything at the defensive end of the floor. Box out. Never relent on the offensive glass. Make the extra pass. 

That made the Lady Bears’ late loss to UConn — the greatest powerhouse in contemporary sports — so frustrating for so many. It represented the chance for a group of absurdly talented players with a variety of different stories to come together and make one history.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Baylor was the underdog, but each of the players on this team worked unpaid through a year of loss, anguish, sweat, and swabs to get to this moment. Each of these players has a story on how they got here. And now, a chapter has been ripped out.

Let’s turn back to Richards for a second. If you didn’t already understand how valuable she is to this team, the 19-0 run should tell you everything you need to know.

Richards is Baylor basketball. She will exit Baylor as one of the best defenders and teammates in college basketball history. She doesn’t care about personal accolades, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who makes more of a difference for their team. 

This injury will always stick with her. After all those hours she put in to get to this point — her lower body was paralyzed as recently as October — Richards’ could only encourage her teammates from the bench. That’s a different type of pain.

And Richards isn’t the only one who knows what it’s like to look on from the sideline.

I am of course referring to her teammates in the backcourt: the bonafide star that is Moon Ursin who hits the majority of the shots that she has no business taking. Baylor’s once-secret weapon is one of the most likable players in the country, and she was one of the only reasons the Lady Bears made this a game, to begin with.

They don’t make many players like Ursin. Ursin grinded through the first three years of college to earn her starting spot, registering almost as many minutes this season (983) as she had in her first three years in the program combined (1206). 

You aren’t going to find a player who can do what Ursin does at 5’6 on either end of the court. Young fans will come out of this game inspired by Ursin. 

And of course, the third member of the backcourt, Carrington. Her shot-making ability, 3-point stroke, uplifting attitude, and status as the “bully” — these are all things that the Baylor program needed. And those don’t even begin to encapsulate what she does on the defensive end of the floor. She and Richards put the pressure on Paige Bueckers and UConn Monday and gave the Huskies a fight they may not see for the rest of the tournament.

All three of these players have an extra year of eligibility left if they wish to take it. All three also could be drafted in several weeks. Their decisions should come soon.

Queen Egbo and NaLyssa Smith will be back, but this loss will sting. Smith was named Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year and still managed to exceed expectations. Egbo gave this team an interior presence that elevated them to championship contention.

It is a mystery that Smith didn’t get more touches in this game. For all the talk of Paige Bueckers leading up to the contest, Smith has been the most complete two-way player on the court in 31 of the Lady Bears’ 31 games. Next season’s National Player of the Year conversation should start with Smith and Bueckers.

That 19-0 mark is going to sit with Baylor and these players for a long, long time. But their careers at Baylor extend far beyond a scoreless drought.

SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 29:The UConn Huskies take on the Baylor Lady Bears in the Elite Eight round of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 29, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Addressing Kim Mulkey’s COVID comments

Now for Mulkey’s comments. After the game, unprompted by reporters, Kim Mulkey said that the NCAA should stop testing players for COVID-19 once the men’s and women’s tournaments reach the Final Four.

“I don’t think my words matter, but after the games today and tomorrow … they need to dump the COVID testing. Wouldn’t it be a shame to keep COVID testing and then you got kids that end up having tested positive or something, and they don’t get to play in the Final Four, so you need to just forget the COVID tests and let the four teams that are playing in each Final 4, go battle it out.” – Kim Mulkey

Most people on social media criticized Mulkey’s statements because she made the comment after 550,000 Americans have died and millions more have dealt with the long-term fallouts, either as COVID long-haulers or as friends and family members of those who have passed.

Kim Mulkey’ did not want players, who have waited their whole lives to play in the Final Four, to miss out on the opportunity. But this would have meant the NCAA would allow unpaid student-athletes to put their health on the line (even more so than they already are) and risk spreading COVID — which again, has killed 550,000 Americans — to each other and their communities.

Mulkey had the opportunity to commend her players and criticize the officials during the press conference, and she took both of those up. But her COVID comments spoke louder.

If you play this game out 100 times, Baylor and UConn probably split the record down the middle. Neither these players — nor Mulkey’s comments — will be lost in history, but only the latter will dilute the former.

And in all 100 of these games, the athletes are supposed to test negative. 

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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