TAMPA, Fla. — When Baylor needed a shot to win, it was not Lauren Cox or Kalani Brown who took the ball inside, the way they did so many times against Oregon in the Women’s Final Four on Friday night.
It was Chloe Jackson, perhaps the most unsung among the Baylor players. On a play called “Five Game” that could easily have gone to Cox, Jackson made a driving layup with 41 seconds to play to put the Lady Bears ahead for good. Their 72-67 win over the Ducks extended their winning streak to 28 games, longest in the nation.
Baylor now has a chance to win its third NCAA title and join UConn and Tennessee as the only programs with three or more NCAA championships.
Cox and Brown combined for 43 points, and their play in the paint put Baylor in position to win what turned out to be a thrilling back-and-forth game. Perhaps Oregon thought Cox or Brown would get the ball with the game tied. Jackson might have been the player the Ducks least expected to take the shot, considering she was 2-of-10 headed into that possession.
“It was like I forgot about every other shot before that,” Jackson said. “That was the only one that mattered. I was locked in that moment. I wasn’t thinking about the shots I missed.”
Her teammates encouraged her to keep shooting, understanding they might not even be in contention for a national championship without her selflessness.
“I had two boxing me out, but Chloe had ice water in her veins and she just let it go,” Brown said. “That’s what she was supposed to do.”
The storyline going into the game was the contrasting styles: a post-oriented team against a tempo 3-point-shooting juggernaut. Though Oregon essentially tried to trade its prowess from the 3-point line for the inside buckets Baylor favored, the strategy ultimately failed because the Ducks missed too many shots.
Plus, Sabrina Ionescu struggled, going 6-of-24 from the floor for 18 points without one bucket in the decisive fourth quarter. With DiDi Richards and Juicy Landrum primarily defending her, she went 5-of-20 against those two combined.
“We just have to learn from the mistakes that we made, and I think a lot of positive is going to come out from watching that game, seeing what we could have done better and what we need to work on,” Ionescu said.
Oregon shot 1-of-13 in the final six minutes of the game, a tribute to Baylor’s swarming defense. Afterward, Ducks coach Kelly Graves said his team took way too many 3-pointers, and a big reason is because its pick-and-roll game was elusive with the 6-foot-4 Cox and 6-foot-7 Brown blocking the interior and Oregon’s own post presence, Ruthy Hebard.
Hebard ended up with only four points. Baylor outscored Oregon 48-20 in the paint.
“They’re big bodies on the inside, so it was tough for us to get open looks at the basket and everything was contested so I had to finish better, Ruthy had to finish better, we all had to finish better,” Ionescu said. “No one played a perfect game.”
Yet it was still jarring to look at the final stat line: Oregon made 12 3-pointers. Baylor made zero.
“A lot of people say that we play an old-school type of game so we stuck to what we knew,” Jackson said. “We knew they were going to come out and shoot 3s and we knew we have All-American post players, so we had to feed it in to them and play off them, that’s how we do it with the inside-out game.”
Oregon had its share of opportunities, and the Ducks were in the game well into the fourth quarter thanks to their 3-point shooting and ability to stay with Baylor on the glass. The Lady Bears had not been in a game that close so late in the fourth quarter. With two minutes left, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey called her players together in a timeout and told them she believed they would win, reassuring them they would make the plays down the stretch.
Then came Jackson.
“The play is for [Cox] to come screen for me and I create,” Jackson said. “If a girl comes up on me, then I know I can dish it to [Cox], and if not, I just go to the hole. All game, I had been passive off that screen so I just knew I could just take it in strong and hopefully get a foul if anything, but it opened up.”
It opened up wide.
“I didn’t expect it to be like that, but they told me I put on the jets,” she said with a laugh.
Her story is remarkable considering what it took to get here.
Baylor point guard Alexis Morris was dismissed in September for a team rules violation. Without Morris, Mulkey taught Jackson — a graduate student who transferred from LSU — everything about the Lady Bears’ offense and defense to get her to a point where she felt comfortable in her role.
“She stayed on me, and she said she would,” Jackson said. “Each day in practice, she was never satisfied. There was always something you could do better. I just embraced that and took on the challenge.”
When it was all over, the crowd chanted, “B-U, B-U!” and in the locker room, the freshmen picked Mulkey up on their shoulders and carried her around. But the Lady Bears know they have one game left. And they wouldn’t be here without their post play, or their often overlooked point guard for that matter.
“[I] asked them why they came to Baylor,” Mulkey said. “All of them screamed, ‘To play for championships!’ Well, you’re getting to play for a championship.
“Perseverance was a big word. We persevered.”