Eight days ago, the Baylor Bears looked to be one win away from a No. 1 seed in the 2022 women’s NCAA tournament. Now, their season is over. The 10th-seeded South Dakota Coyotes beat Baylor 61-47 on Sunday, dominating wire to wire to advance to their first Sweet 16. Baylor, the second No. 2 seed of the day to lose on its home court, had appeared in 12 consecutive regional semi-finals.
Coupled with Creighton’s upset of Iowa earlier Sunday, the Sweet 16 will include at least two double-digit seeds for the first time since 2018, when Central Michigan and Buffalo made the trip as 11-seeds. This also marks the first time since 2016 that a pair of top-two seeds went out in the first two rounds (Arizona State and Maryland). This year’s eight wins by double-digit seeds in the first two rounds ties the NCAA tournament mark previously set in 2018.
What happened in Waco, Texas? How did South Dakota hold Baylor’s offense — which averaged the eighth-most points per game in the country — to its lowest total of the season? How did the Coyotes pull off the shocker and end Baylor’s streak of 68 consecutive home wins against nonconference opponents?
Baylor struggled and fell behind early. What went wrong for the Bears?
The looks on the Baylor players’ faces in the last minute of South Dakota’s upset said it all. They stood alone, separated on the court, staring into space, expressionless. It was clear none of them saw this coming. And perhaps that was the problem. The Bears didn’t look prepared to play against this smart, veteran South Dakota team, and they never adjusted. But they couldn’t. South Dakota was that good, and it has yet to trail in its two wins.
In the first seven minutes of the game, Baylor had seven missed shots, seven turnovers and zero points. South Dakota took advantage of that sluggishness to grab an 11-0 lead. By the end of the first quarter, the Bears had four points, their fewest in a period this season.
Things never really got better for Baylor, which seemed baffled by South Dakota’s defensive rotations and ability to limit the Bears’ offensive rebounding. Baylor trailed by 11 at the half and by 13 after three quarters. The game never got closer than seven points in the final period. The Coyotes were the dominant team from start to finish.
Given how Baylor was playing heading into the Big 12 tournament championship game — a win in that March 13 final and the Bears seemed guaranteed of a No. 1 seed — makes Sunday’s performance all the more stunning. After working through the transition to new coach Nicki Collen and taking some lumps in the early part of the season, the Bears seemed to have it figured out. They won the Big 12 regular-season title and were on a 12-game winning streak. Then Texas stopped Baylor cold in the tournament title game; the Bears didn’t look like the same team in a nine-point loss. That level of performance seemed to carry over into Sunday’s game. — Cream
How did South Dakota pull off the upset?
South Dakota jumped to a 16-4 lead over Baylor by forcing 10 first-quarter turnovers (10! In 10 minutes! As in an average of one per minute!) and scoring 10 points off them. The Coyotes played, as coach Dawn Plitzuweit said postgame, “fearless” from the jump. The game was more even from then on, but once the Bears were rocked back on their heels, they never seemed to fully recover enough to go on a big lead-clinching run.
Bigger picture, the Coyotes got here in the first place because of their defensive identity, punching their ticket to the Big Dance by holding a talented South Dakota State team to a season-low 24.6% shooting in the Summit League title game. That defensive effort was apparent against 7-seed Ole Miss in the first round, where potential WNBA lottery pick Shakira Austin was held to nine points on 3-for-16 shooting, her second-worst shooting percentage of the season. The Coyotes followed that up Sunday by limiting expected top-two WNBA pick NaLyssa Smith to 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting in what was a true master class in game-planning and execution.
Plitzuweit and players said afterward their intent was to make touches difficult for Smith and not let her go one-on-one by sending help, which Baylor’s Caitlin Bickle said the Bears hadn’t seen a lot in the Big 12 this year with them playing a more spaced offense under Collen.
With Smith struggling, no one else was really able to pick up the slack for Baylor. The Bears, who under Collen shoot 3s and hit them at a decent clip, went just 5-for-26 from deep, their third-worst rate from 3 on the season. After the game, Collen pointed to the Coyotes’ physicality and height advantage in the backcourt as factors that made her Bears a bit more uncomfortable. — Philippou
What is the ceiling for South Dakota? How far can the Coyotes go in the bracket?
South Dakota stays alive in the tournament by defeating Baylor.
If the first two rounds had a Coach of the Tournament award, it would go to Plitzuweit. As Alexa mentioned, the Coyotes’ game plans took Austin and Smith out of the game and were brilliant. Those two — likely top-five picks in April’s WNBA draft — were completely frustrated by the defense the Coyotes threw at them.
The 6-foot-5 Austin and 6-4 Smith combined to score 19 points on 7-for-27 shooting. Whether it’s Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist or Michigan’s Naz Hillmon up next in the regional semifinals, both should expect to be defended well.
Hannah Sjerven, South Dakota’s 6-foot-2 center, is 13-of-21 shooting in the tournament and has 36 total points. Sjerven is joined by Chloe Lamb — who is averaging 21.2 points per game on 53% shooting over the past four contests — and Liv Korngable as super seniors who came back to Vermillion for one more shot at NCAA tournament success.
With those veterans and the game-planning acumen South Dakota has displayed, an Elite Eight trip is in the cards. As successful as South Dakota was in completely shutting down Baylor, doing the same thing to a Louisville or Tennessee in a regional final doesn’t seem out of the question. — Cream
How does Baylor’s elimination change the Wichita Regional?
In shorts, the path to Minneapolis looks way more feasible for the remaining teams with Baylor eliminated, especially given, prior to Sunday, how dominating the Bears had looked the last few weeks of the season. At its best in Big 12 play, Baylor really looked like it could be title contenders.
Top-seeded Louisville, in particular, has got to be licking its chops right now. For one, the Cardinals — who have made it to three straight Elite Eights — have played some pretty good basketball to start the NCAA tournament, rebounding from their early ACC tournament loss with fairly comfortable wins over Albany and Gonzaga. Should Louisville take care of business in the Sweet 16, where it’ll play the winner of Belmont-Tennessee, it would face Villanova, Michigan or South Dakota in the Elite Eight. Belmont and South Dakota have never previously played in the Sweet 16. Tennessee’s top scorer, rebounder and distributor, Jordan Horston, remains out with no real word on whether she could return. Villanova hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2003. And Louisville already demolished Michigan 70-48 earlier this year.
And 3-seed Michigan should be even more motivated to get it together after dropping four of its last six games heading into the NCAA tournament. With Baylor, which the Wolverines lost to in the 2021 Sweet 16 then beat in overtime in December, out of the picture, Kim Barnes Arico’s squad should feel more empowered to make its first Elite Eight, if not more.
Outside of the Wichita Region, I also suspect South Carolina is feeling pretty good right about now. — Philippou
What’s next for Baylor?
One year after having to transition to a new coaching staff, the Bears are going to have to adjust to a new roster. Bickle and Ja’Mee Asberry are both coming back to use their extra year of eligibility, and Sarah Andrews is just a sophomore, but three starters — Smith, Queen Egbo and Jordan Lewis — will be gone. That means replacing three of the top four scorers and the two leading rebounders.
Even with Collen bringing in the ninth-best recruiting class according to the ESPN.com rankings, and the possibilities the transfer portal possesses, he doesn’t appear the Bears will be as talented next year. Losing a player the caliber of Smith alone will take considerable adjustment.
And with Big 12 teams like Texas and Kansas likely bringing back most of their contributors, winning a 13th consecutive regular-season conference championship could be a challenge. — Cream