— Debbie Antonelli (@debbieantonelli) April 1, 2013
There has been a clear strategy for teams to beating interested in beating the Baylor Lady Bears over the last two seasons.
WNIT participant Kansas State executed the plan admirably earlier this year, keeping themselves within 4 points with just over 15 minutes left in a game on March 4, a performance obscured by Brittney Griner’s 50-point performance. Iowa State did something similar, keeping themselves within 7 points with 6:11 left in the game on January 7, 2012 before succumbing to a combination of Lady Bears defense and dominant offense.
Louisville’s hot shooting
What those two games had in common with the Louisville Cardinals‘ win today is that both of those teams got hot from the 3-point line to help them score over Baylor’s formidable defense. That part of the strategy to beat Baylor has been obvious for some time now, as written in the preview of the game today. The problem is that those other two teams – arguably inferior to Louisville’s team – just couldn’t sustain the hot shooting that included well-above average individual shooting performances.
Part of what went right for Louisville is that their shots just kept falling.
To that point, Mark C. Moore of SB Nation’s Baylor site Our Daily Bears made the point after the game that claims of Louisville employing a “masterful gameplan” were overstated and to some extent, when you look back at how some other non-elite teams have played Baylor, that’s very true: even if you argue that Louisville won the game for a number of reasons, 64% 3-point shooting by a 31% shooting team – yes, more than twice their season success rate – was a major, major reason that they were able to hang on for a one point win.
Louisville’s unconscious shooting is hiding their inability to rebound & their terrible ball-handling against pressure.
— Brian McCormick (@brianmccormick) April 1, 2013
Acknowledging that there was quite a bit of luck involved in Louisville’s win, there are still two things they did extremely well that should be acknowledged.
Containing Brittney Griner
WNBA fans have been saying for some time that Griner’s biggest challenge in her transition from college to the pros would be dealing with the physicality of professional post players. Louisville’s defensive game plan probably embodied some measure of agreement with that notion.
Louisville didn’t just swarm Griner wildly when she got the ball, but they crowded her in spots from where she could neither score nor even move her feet. She wasn’t rendered ineffective because she was inefficient but because she simply couldn’t get shots off.
In the first half she did have 5 free throw attempts, but only 4 field goal attempts. In the second half, Griner had 6 field goal attempts – including all 4 of her made field goals – but only got to the line 3 times. By the second half, the entire Baylor team looked frustrated and discombobulated, ineffectively force-feeding Griner the ball on a number of occasions. When Griner was getting shots off, she was missing shots in the lane she normally makes.
That’s pretty good defense on a 6-foot-8 dunking center who nobody assumed could be stopped, particularly for a team whose tallest player (6-foot-4 Sheronne Vails) only played 16 minutes due to foul trouble.
Driving to the basket and forcing Baylor to rotate
Offensively, Louisville did something else that a few other teams have exploited but have failed to do consistently: they forced Griner to make decisions defensively.
More than one of those 16 Louisville threes were wide open and a major reason for that was Baylor’s inability to respond to ball movement or guard penetration effectively.
Driving right at Griner was part of that, but not everyone had a highlight reel play like Shoni Schimmel did when she tossed the ball over her shoulder on a fast break to hit a shot over Griner. What penetrating and kicking did was force Baylor’s defense to scramble as players tried to rotate out to cover shooters. And then something that has been evident all season for astute observers happened: nobody found the open shooters and Griner froze when she was left to make a decision in space.
Normally, teams take advantage of that in pick and rolls: UConn did a great job of that and had Stefanie Dolson not been in foul trouble, they could’ve won that game as Griner was left in no man’s land on more than one occasion. But Louisville did it by moving the ball well, attacking gaps, and finding shooters who found open spots to catch and shoot.
None of this is to put the blame on Griner for the Cardinals’ defensive lapses, but it’s a vulnerable spot in the Baylor’s defense that many have failed to exploit. Louisville managed, on more than one occasion, to put Baylor’s defense on their heels and then find shooters in spots where Griner was in position to rotate to help missed assignments from others.
That’s no small accomplishment and they capitalized when they got opportunities to score over an elite defense.
A Perfect Storm
The better way to make Moore’s point about Louisville’s shooting is that the upset, as many results of this magnitude entail, was a perfect storm of factors that had to converge for an upset to occur.
It’s silly to believe that Louisville’s defensive gameplan alone won this game: they could not have put Baylor in such a deep hole without hitting all those threes. But – officiating aside – they deserve credit for the gameplan and maintaining their faith in it even as Baylor started to make their comeback. That is impressive if, for no other reason, because nobody else was able to do it.
For more on the game, check out our Oklahoma City region storystream.