by Jerry Hill, Baylor Bear Insider
Maybe it's the way last year ended.
But I have to wonder if there's ever been a No. 1 overall seed that's been more focused than the top-ranked Baylor Lady Bears (36-0).
"You don't even look at the score," said 6-foot-8 All-American post Brittney Griner, who's averaging 23.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and a national-best 5.1 blocks per game. "Just go out there and play hard, play every possession like it's your life, like you won't be able to step on that court again."
That single-minded focus, borderline obsession, is what has carried Baylor into the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year and seventh in the last nine seasons. The top-seeded Lady Bears face fourth-seeded Georgia Tech (26-8) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the region semifinals at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
"I think it's that we've maintained our focus, that we have pretty much approached each game with a businesslike attitude," said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, when asked what's been the most pleasant development through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
"Nothing has really changed. It's not a surprise, but you enjoy seeing your team not change their approach, not feel any pressure, not fail to play hard. They just go out there and do what they've been doing."
In Tuesday's 76-57 second-round win over Florida, the defense held the Gators to 32.9 percent shooting from the field and a dismal 4-of-19 (21.1 percent) from outside the 3-point arc.
Junior guard Jordan Madden scored a season-high 13 points to go with six rebounds, two assists, one block and a steal. But she also clamped down on defense, holding guard Jordan Jones to just two points on 1-of-8 shooting.
"We had a timeout in the Florida game, and I said, 'Jordan, just guard them all! Just guard them all, Jordan!''' Mulkey said of her 6-0 junior guard. "She's so zoned in defensively, and then to give you double-figure scoring. Jones is one of Florida's top two scorers. And other than a layup on a turnover with a minute to go in the game, the kid doesn't even score and hardly even gets any shot attempts."
Madden will likely be matched against 5-11 sophomore guard Tyaunna Marshall, a second-team All-ACC pick who ranks second on the team with 14.5 points per game.
"Jordan is our energy, our spark on the defensive end, and she's giving us stuff on offense, too," said sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims, who's averaging 14.6 points, 4.5 assists and 3.1 steals per game. "That's what we need. We need someone who is going to stop the other team's best player, someone who can step up when I can't do everything. When I can't score or when we're having trouble getting the ball to the wings or to (Griner), I just think Jordan's doing a great job right now."
Griner created a buzz in the Florida game when she threw down her first dunk of the season and sixth of her career early in the second half.
"That was monstrous the other day," Mulkey said of the dunk, which was the second ever in NCAA tournament play. "I didn't see it coming. I just saw the little flip back to her (from Nae-Nae Hayden), and I thought she'd go up and shoot it. When she went up, I thought, 'She's fixing to throw this down.'''
Mulkey reiterated that she has no problem with Griner dunking and hasn't told her 6-8 post not to dunk in games.
"If the dunk presents itself, sure, go for it," she said. "But it's kind of hard to do when you've got two or three people around you. Sometimes I'm OK with her sending a message if she thinks she can dunk and she misses it, unless it's a game-winner. Time and score would dictate if I got frustrated about a missed dunk."
After the game, Griner said her phone "blew up," with people texting her about the highlight-reel dunk that was No. 2 on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays of the Day.
"All these people were telling me they'd seen the highlights," said Griner, who joined former Tennessee All-American as the only woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game. "They were out eating somewhere and looked up, and I was on the screen. A lot of people were telling me about it."
Georgia Tech, making its first-ever appearance in the Sweet 16, has a pair of senior starters in 6-5 center Sasha Goodlett (14.6 points, 7.7 rebounds) and 5-6 point guard Metra Walthour (9.6 points, 3.8 assists).
"They're on a mission like we are," Mulkey said of the Yellowjackets, who fell to Maryland, 68-65, in the ACC tournament championship game. "They don't expect to lose... Georgia Tech is going to trap you in every zone imaginable, and they're not going to deviate from that. They're going to do it the whole game. They are athletic, mix their defenses up, and they'll bang with you and be as physical as they're allowed to be as well."
While Goodlett and Marshall are the team's only double-figure scorers, freshman guard Sydney Wallace averaged 25.5 points in wins over Sacred Heart and Georgetown in the opening rounds.
"Ever since we came in, we wanted to do something special. We wanted to leave our mark on this program," Goodlett said.
"We know we've never been to the Sweet 16 before, so we wanted to celebrate," Walthour said. "But this is not as far as we want to go. We're here to play, we're confident, and we know we're not done yet."
Second-seeded Tennessee (26-8) faces No. 11 seed Kansas (21-12) in the other semifinal at 11 a.m. Saturday, with the two winners squaring off Monday for a spot in next weekend's Final Four in Denver, Colo.
"We're definitely enjoying the journey to the ultimate goal," Griner said. "I think in March, the intensity goes up. As you keep going and as you keep winning each game, it just goes up more and more and more. Because when you get that close, nobody wants their season to be over."