UConn, Baylor rookies come of age
Freshmen for both teams come up big in game decided by one point
HARTFORD, Conn. -- There were a lot of big names in the house when Tuesday's game between No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Baylor began. There were more by the end of the night.
For their parts, Maya Moore and Brittney Griner more than lived up to the billing that accompanied the two most recognizable names in the college game. Connecticut's Moore finished with 30 points and made the kind of plays that stick in the memory long after the traffic clears around the arena. And as Baylor rallied from a 15-point deficit in the second half to take an eight-point lead on a court that hadn't witnessed a Connecticut loss since the Big East tournament in 2007, Griner was, naturally, right in the middle of things on her way to 19 points and nine blocks.
It wasn't a stage for your average freshman. Fortunately for both teams and everyone who tuned in hoping for a game, Connecticut and Baylor don't recruit a lot of average freshmen. Because what made this game a showdown that exceeded expectations were the players about whom we knew little beyond the murkiness of recruiting and the optimism of preseason previews.
Connecticut's 65-64 win was something special because of the plays Baylor freshman point guard Odyssey Sims made. It was thrilling because of the shots Connecticut freshman point guard Bria Hartley made. And it was meaningful because of the defense Connecticut freshman forward Samarie Walker played when pressed into service against someone seven inches taller.
We didn't know them and they didn't know what they were in for.
"I mean, I've never even seen a 6-8 female person," Walker said of Griner, drawing a bigger laugh after the game than anything her coach said -- a feat almost as precocious as bodying up against Baylor's big sophomore star. "So stepping out there next to her, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, she really is big.' But once I was out there, I just completely forgot about the height difference, and I just played her as if we were the same height."
When Connecticut played Baylor in the Final Four last season in San Antonio, Walker's time in the Alamodome was spent playing in a high school all-star contest, not the main event. She could have been excused had she turned to prayer in her first college game against a team other than Holy Cross, but instead she put her forearm in Griner's back and pushed, distracted and, by her own admission, probably annoyed the All-American into 1-of-4 shooting with three rebounds in the first half. And as Auriemma noted, Walker was one of the Huskies' best offensive weapons while barely touching the ball, setting screen after screen for Moore.
"I thought Samarie was unbelievable; she really was," Auriemma said. "She is really something else. I didn't want to take her out. Once she got in there, and I saw what she was doing and how she was going about it, I didn't want to take her out."
Walker's role was one born out of necessity on the night. Fellow freshman Stefanie Dolson started but picked up two fouls in the game's first five minutes while guarding Griner. Sims, on the other hand, filled a void for Baylor that will linger beyond Tuesday's particular matchup.
When senior Kelli Griffin unexpectedly quit the team shortly before the start of the season, the Lady Bears found themselves down a point guard who led the team with 187 assists last season. In fact, if you subtract Griffin's contributions, Baylor finished last season with 166 more turnovers than assists. The Bears finished Tuesday's game with 24 turnovers, but Baylor coach Kim Mulkey didn't put her point guard who played for 34 minutes among the issues that concerned her. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"I do know it wasn't point guard play, that all you thought would be suspect after Kelli Griffin's departure," Mulkey said. "I don't think the point guard play on our team was a factor. I thought [Sims] played as well as any freshman I've ever had."
Just in case your memory is a little hazy on the subject; she had been a pretty good freshman last season.
With Walker making life difficult for Griner, Sims kept Baylor in the game. The Huskies took a 22-15 lead with a little more than five minutes to play in the first half only to see Sims hit a 3-pointer, holding her shooting hand locked in its follow through as she retreated past the Connecticut bench. The Huskies led 29-21 lead with three minutes to play in the half when Sims struck again with a 3-pointer -- and then another not even a minute later.
She had her freshman moments -- barreling into Kelly Faris in transition or lobbing an entry pass that would have made Brett Favre wince at the ease with which Moore picked it off. But from the scoring in the first half to generally steady stewardship through the second-half run, Sims didn't just fill Griffin's shoes; she made Baylor a more dangerous team.
"We recruited Odyssey to be a point guard," Mulkey said. "And it's great, when you can have a senior and a freshman, and the senior departed on you early, so the freshman's eyes get bigger and she's like, 'Bring it on, coach; I'll play for you.'"
That it wasn't enough ultimately came down to a pair of 3-pointers by Hartley. Mired in a shooting funk for most of the night, she hit the 3-pointer that completed Connecticut's comeback and tied the score at 58 with 3:56 to play. After Faris collected a key offensive rebound on a miss by Moore, it was Hartley who took the pass and drained another 3-pointer to give the Huskies the lead for good, 63-60.
"I'm just so proud of the way she had my back today," Moore said of Hartley. "And Samarie did a great job and came in and held her own down there, trying to make it tough for Griner to score, as well. So these two, I think, have more of a sense of ownership now that this game is over."
The result mattered because it was too good a game to say otherwise, and because there is that pesky streak that remains alive. But Tuesday was just as much about setting the stage for what's to come. And after 40 minutes of basketball, we know a lot more about how a very different Connecticut team will try to prolong its championship run with newcomers Walker and Hartley supporting Moore and Tiffany Hayes.
We also know a lot more about one of the teams most likely to end that run, a team that showed that amidst a bunch of talent, it might have the makings of a second star to play alongside the biggest one out there.
"She's way more offensive-minded," Auriemma said of Sims in relation to Griffin. "Those three 3s she hit were back breakers. I mean, that's nine points. ... We just gave them nine points like that. That's a whole different ball game, [if] we go in there up 15, 16, whatever it is. And that was all her. And they weren't easy.
"As the season goes on, they're going to have to find -- I'm sure Kim knows this -- they're going to have to find something other than Brittney Griner, just like we have to find something other than Maya Moore. That's going to be one of them, I know that."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.