OKLAHOMA CITY — It might be difficult to imagine defense being a key in a game in which 179 points are scored.
But the second-seeded Mississippi State women’s basketball team’s defense against Kalani Brown and the rest of top-seeded Baylor’s post players Sunday night played a huge role in its 94-85 overtime victory before a crowd of 3,128 in the championship game of the NCAA tournament’s Oklahoma City Regional at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
MSU (33-4) also forced Baylor (33-4) into 17 turnovers and turned those mistakes into a 20-4 edge in points off turnovers.
“We didn’t get the ball to the bigs enough,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “Credit Mississippi State’s defense for creating turnovers. It was ridiculous. I mean, guys, it was just one turnover after another after another after another after another. What do you do?”
MSU started 6-foot-5 sophomore center Teaira McCowan against 6-7 center Kalani Brown. While Brown was 11-for-13 from the field and had 27 points, nine rebounds, and five blocked shots, the Bulldogs made it tough for her to get more touches.
“It’s a disappointment,” Brown said. “Just sorry I couldn’t get (the seniors to the Final Four).”
Chinwe Okorie, a 6-5 senior center, aided MSU’s defense against Brown, who was named to the regional’s all-tournament team, 6-4 Lauren Cox (0-for-1 from the field, zero points) and 6-4 Beatrice Mompremier (1-for-2, three). Nina Davis, who also was named to the regional’s all-tournament team, was 7-for-11 from the field for 18 points to help pick up the slack, but guards Alexis Prince (3-for-9, eight) and Alexis Jones (5-for-16, 16) weren’t able to make up for the difference. Jones had seven assists and five turnovers.
Baylor also couldn’t overcome foul trouble that limited point guard Kristy Wallace to 26 minutes. The junior from Australia had four assists and a season-high seven assists.
Mulkey said she didn’t say anything to Wallace after the game.
“She’s crying. She’s upset,” Mulkey said. “I just went into the locker room and apologized to the four seniors that I couldn’t as their coach get them to a Final Four.”
On the flip side, MSU hit 10-for-20 3-pointers. It was the fourth time this season the Bulldogs made 10 or more treys in a game, and the sixth time this season they shot 50 percent or better from behind the arc.
Mulkey epitomized the Bears’ evening when she turned to her bench and smiled after MSU junior point guard Morgan William banked in a 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter. Victoria Vivians also banked in a deep jumper.
“We seem to be very poor defensively or bring out the best in people,” Mulkey said.
MSU coach Vic Schaefer said he mixed and matched McCowan and Okorie as much as he could, especially after Baylor went to Brown right off the bat in the first quarter. McCowan played 29 minutes and committed four fouls, while Okorie had four points (three fouls) in 17 minutes. They combined for nine rebounds to help the Bulldogs battle back after they were outrebounds 21-13 at halftime. Baylor’s final advantage was 40-34. It used that edge to have a 48-20 edge in points in the paint. Second-chance points were tied at 15.
“That’s two aircraft carriers that do a great job for us and have really impacted our team and our program,” Schaefer said. “Those two have great chemistry. … They’re both cheering for each other. There’s a lot of love between those two.”
MSU’s defense was at its best in the fourth quarter and in overtime. The Bears were 5-for-12 from the field in the fourth quarter and 2-for-7 in overtime. Baylor had a chance to win the game in regulation, but Jones missed a drive. The Bears inbounded the basketball with 3.4 seconds remaining only to have McCowan tip away a lob pass to Brown for a turnover.
“Jones I thought had a good look there at the end of regulation, blocked it, or two of three of them collapsed on her there,” Mulkey said. “I’ll say it again. As good as they played and as poorly as we played in handling the basketball, we still had an opportunity to win, and we didn’t.
“Guys, I played the position of point guard. If you look at Nina Davis’ stats and you look at Kalani’s stats, she didn’t miss much. The problem was we couldn’t get them the ball enough. That goes back to ball pressure, being able to run the show out there. Seventeen turnovers to four, you shouldn’t even be in the ballgame, not at the Elite Eight level.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.