Brooklyn Pope the difference-maker, coming off the bench, as Baylor defeats Connecticut 76-70

HARTFORD, Conn. — It was the February, 2013 version of the “Game of the Century.” Top-ranked Baylor, with one loss in their last 65 games, against Connecticut, a team that had gone 57-5 in that same time frame. Two great coaches in Kim Mulkey and Geno Auriemma, and star power galore, starting with Baylor’s Brittney Griner, the most likely repeat National Player of the Year, and Odyssey Sims, also presumed to be a first team All-American.

As good as Griner was, and she was very good, with 25 points to cross the 3,000 mark for her career, it was the Rutgers transfer, Brooklyn Pope that was a difference-maker in last night’s game, coming off the bench to score 18 points and pull in nine rebounds.

Pope, who had started the previous eight games also had three steals, while Destiny Williams, who got the nod over Pope contributed seven points, eight rebounds and two more steals. The combined first half total of 13 points, 15 rebounds (10 offensive), and two steals had a major impact on Baylor being able to go into halftime down three, 29-26, despite UConn controlling the majority of the half.

Kaleena Mosequeda-Lewis continued her all-around stellar play for the Huskies, racking up a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds in the half, hitting five of six shots.

“I think we were in control of the game the whole first half, until the last three minutes,” commented Auriemma. “It just goes to show you, against a really good team, when mentally you make a couple of mistakes, how quickly the game can change. As well as we played defensively, and executed defensively, it should have been a 15 point game in the first half instead of a three-point game.”

Mulkey knew that her team was in a good place at the break, being behind only three despite poor shooting from Griner and Sims.

“I thought the first half, these two All-Americans were 3-for-19,” said Mulkey. “Had you kept [UConn] from getting two offensive boards, [we] might have had the lead if we’d have had the rebound and had the last shot of the half. I’ve never seen the two of them have two bad halves.”

She was right, as the second half belonged to Griner and Sims.

“In the first half, I didn’t have a good half,” Griner said about her 2-9 shooting performance. “I didn’t help out my team too much. I wanted to come out in the second half a little bit more aggressive than I did in the first so I could do something to help out.”

Griner was dominant, scoring 21 second half points on eight for twelve shooting, adding two blocks, and generally dictating all the action in the paint. The control Griner exercised in the paint can be seen in the fact UConn shot four foul shots for the entire game. On the season, UConn averages just over 15 foul shot attempts per game. Against Baylor they shot four, and two were after Griner’s flagrant foul. UConn’s Stefanie Dolson, perhaps the second best center in the country, was turned into a jump shooter only, not getting into the paint for shots, and not earning any trips to the line other than that flagrant foul.

The “other” All-American, Sims, struggled offensively hitting only 3 of 15 shots, but she controlled the ball and the pace brilliantly, dishing out seven assists while not committing a turnover against the UConn pressure defense. Perhaps the best on ball defender in the country, she also added two steals, including one of the finest steals you will ever see, stripping Bria Hartley on a crossover dribble that led to two of Baylor’s 16 fast break points.

Meanwhile for UConn Mosqueda-Lewis was trying to keep her team close, scoring 13 more points in the second half, for a game high 26 points.For the game she hit 11 of 14 shots, missing only from three-point range, and pulled down 15 rebounds, eight offensive, for the game.

It was disappointing for the Huskies, however, that seniors Caroline Doty and Kelly Faris had two of their less impactful games. While Faris did have nine points and five rebounds, she only played 26 minutes, while Doty was scoreless in 17 minutes. In their places, freshmen Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson received crucial playing time, which could be important for the team during the upcoming post-season tournaments.

Tuck has turned back the clock on her season to October, when Auriemma told the press that she was the second best post on the team, other than Dolson. Playing against someone with the size of Griner for the first time (“It was different,” she said postgame in the understatement of the night), she contributed 11 points and five rebounds, while not appearing to be intimidated at all.

In the end, however, it is fitting that on the large Play4Kay stage, where everyone contributed to help the battle against breast cancer, it was the team effort of Baylor that put away the Huskies. All eight that played contributed in some form, be it the big three-point shots of Kemetria Hayden, the defense of Jordan Madden, and the 27 minutes with one turnover from freshmen Niya Johnson and Alexis Prince. Connecticut moved away from their teamwork that had given them first half success, and paid for it in the second half.

Will a rematch have the same outcome?

Baylor fans will tell you their team only shot 26.8 percent in the first half, Sims was 3-15, in front of 16,000 in Hartford, and they still won.

Connecticut fans will tell you their team almost won with contributors Doty, Jefferson, and Breanna Stewart combining for zero points and three turnovers, Dolson and Hartley shooting a combined 9 for 25, and they still almost won.

Should they meet again in the tournament, it is women’s basketball that will be the big winner.

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