Women’s Elite Eight: Baylor-Iowa expected to be a battle of the bigs

Women’s Elite Eight: Baylor-Iowa expected to be a battle of the bigs

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The eyes of Baylor guard Didi Richards grew big in the second quarter of Saturday’s women’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 rout of South Carolina when she saw Kalani Brown running alone for a fast-break opportunity.

She lofted the ball long and high, hoping to give the 6-foot-7 center a chance to run under it for an easy basket.

Instead, Brown slowed to a stop and watched the ball sail well over her head out of bounds. She then turned and gave Richards a puzzled stare that she maintained for most of the walk to the other end of the court, where she said, “Really?”

“She knows better,” added Brown, who later joked about the pass with Richards. “She’s one of the best passers on the team. So for her to throw that crazy thing to me, I was like, ‘What?'”

Brown is one of the biggest players in women’s college basketball. She can get to balls over many opponents under the basket without having to leave the floor. Her inside presence is a big reason the top-seeded Lady Bears are 34-1 and favored to win the title heading into Monday night’s Elite Eight matchup against second-seeded Iowa.

Speed and mobility to make up for bad passes, such as the one Richards threw, are not Brown’s strengths. That isn’t to suggest that Brown is slow or immobile. The daughter of former NBA star P.J. Brown just knows those are things she has to improve on to excel at the next level.

She knows those two parts of her game will be showcased against Iowa center Megan Gustafson, who plays much bigger than her height (6-foot-3) because she’s so effective at positioning her body and using her agility to get around defenders.

A recent video of her “Mikan Drill,” in which Gustafson puts a ball in each hand and makes one layup after another for 40 seconds, is a great example of her versatility.

“She positions herself really well to get the ball,” Brown said as she anticipated the 7 p.m. ET game at Greensboro Coliseum. “Her guards have a lot of great passing. They really get the ball to her, and she never stops moving, so that’s another challenge.

“You know, everyone’s talking about my mobility and how I can’t move supposedly. Whatever.”

While both teams have great guards and other solid inside players, the focus will be on Brown and Gustafson, both finalists for the Lisa Leslie Award honoring the nation’s best center. Gustafson also is a finalist for the Naismith Trophy recognizing the best player in the country after leading the nation in scoring (28 points per game) and field goal percentage (70.1).

“It’s just two great post players playing their game,” said Brown, who admitted that the matchup, as key as it will be, might be overhyped.

Not overhyped is Gustafson’s importance to Iowa’s chances of an upset against a team that has won 26 straight. The entire offense flows through her with the high-low post game.

“She’s the [espnW] national player of the year,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of Gustafson. “We’ve got our hands full.”

Perhaps a bit of gamesmanship — and motivation — there. Iowa has its hands full inside not only with Brown but also with 6-foot-4 forward Lauren Cox. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder noted that Gustafson hasn’t faced many 6-foot-7 players this season.

“That’s a real challenge,” she said. “And we know that. But what allows [Megan] to be successful is she does run the floor well. She’s got great footwork. She’s got wonderful hands. Her shot is very, very quick. She’s got some great ball fakes, up-and-unders she can get you off the ground with.

“She’s got a good hook shot. Hook shots are really hard to defend. So she’s found ways to shoot over bigger people because she does it all the time. Now, not 6-[foot]-7, but almost all year she’s been undersized.”

Brown admittedly can’t sit back on Gustafson like she might other players and think, “Oh, she’s 6-foot-3. I can just block her shot.”

“She has a soft touch around the basket, so there’s no way I can let her get deep and turn around and shoot it because that’s an automatic two points,” Brown said. “I have to play her straight-up.”

Brown will get some help from Cox, who has 2 inches on Iowa’s other inside threat, Hannah Stewart (6-foot-2).

“I think our size may bother her a little bit,” Cox said of Gustafson. “I don’t think she’s ever played against somebody Kalani’s size.”

Brown has faced players such as Gustafson, most recently California’s Kristine Anigwe (6-foot-4), who earlier this year had 32 points and 32 rebounds against Washington State for a Pac-12-record 30 straight double-doubles.

“To me, nobody moves more than Kristine Anigwe,” Brown said.

Anigwe was 4-for-17 from the floor and had only five rebounds against Baylor.

“I’m just going to play my game,” Brown said. “We’re just going to match up and see where the chips fall.”

Brown has a bit of a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her mobility, which she agrees “hasn’t been my strong suit.”

“I hate when people over-exaggerate and say I can’t move at all,” she said. “You know what I’m saying? Like I can’t slide or move my feet at all. That’s when I take offense to it. They kind of overdo it at times. That’s when I take offense.”

Mulkey agreed, saying that foul line to foul line, Brown runs as well as any big player she has coached. Mulkey also praised Brown’s ability to shoot from the perimeter, though that’s not called for often because the Lady Bears have great scoring balance.

“All I know is the kid is a special player, and she’s got her hands full tomorrow against what in y’all’s opinion is the best player in the country,” Mulkey said. “[Gustafson’s] pretty good — averages a lot of points, a lot of rebounds.

“I just don’t want Kalani to have nightmares all night.”

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