- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DES MOINES, Iowa -- There was some tension for the favorite in Saturday's first semifinal, but Tennessee then pulled away to beat Kansas 84-73. The second regional semifinal here at Wells Fargo Arena pretty much lacked any drama, save whether Baylor center Brittney Griner would add to her dunk highlight reel.
She did, as No. 1 seed Baylor dispatched No. 4 Georgia Tech 83-68. Griner had 35 points, 10 rebounds, six blocked shots and one two-handed slam. Destiny Williams made 9 of 10 shots for 18 points, adding five rebounds.
But as impressive as the Baylor frontcourt was, coach Kim Mulkey said everything hinged on the press-breaking -- actually, it was more press-crushing -- ability of her guards.
"I thought the difference in the game was Odyssey Sims, Nae-Nae Hayden, Jordan Madden and Terran Condrey," Mulkey said of her guards. "Brittney got 35 points because of their ability to handle the pressure.
"We had heard and read where, I guess in the Big 12 we don't get pressed like that very often, and that they have guards as good as Sims in the ACC. And that motivates you. We handled their great pressure defense."
Uh if that didn't read as sardonic as it actually sounded, rest assured it was Mulkey's way of saying she really didn't care much for the pregame suggestion that Georgia Tech's defense would disrupt the Lady Bears. Not much gets past Mulkey -- actually, make that nothing gets past her -- and she tends to be particularly motivated by slights, either real or perceived.
It's actually part of what makes her entertaining as a coach -- well, at least to us in the media -- but you're not going to hear anything like that from her about Tennessee.
Mulkey in general loves playing against great teams, but Monday's matchup (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) is not one she relishes because she admires Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt so much. There's the added emotional element of Summitt dealing with the dementia diagnosis, which of course has added poignancy to this entire season.
Don't let the genuine swagger fool you; Mulkey deep down is a sentimental type. But ultimately she's also all-business as a coach. A Final Four is on the line.
"Tennessee has done a heck of a lot more in women's basketball than we have," Mulkey said. "We are still trying in our own way to become respected like Tennessee is.
"I don't take great pleasure in coaching against Pat Summitt. She's a personal friend. She's a mentor. She is everything that is good about sports. Yet we have a job to do. We'll go out there and play extremely hard, and I'm sure they will play extremely hard. She's got seniors that haven't been [to the Final Four], and we have a kid that's supposed to be the greatest post player that's never won a championship. So there are a lot of motivating factors for each team."
As a player and then assistant coach for Louisiana Tech, Mulkey faced Summitt's Tennessee squad six times in the AIAW or NCAA tournaments, including three meetings for a national championship (1981, '87, '98). Since Mulkey took over as head coach at Baylor in 2000-01, she has met Tennessee in the NCAA tournament twice (2004, '10). Combining all of that, Mulkey's personal overall postseason record against Summitt is 5-3.
The second of Tennessee's eight losses this season was a 76-67 defeat at the hands of Baylor in November in Knoxville, Tenn.
After that game, Summitt said, "Baylor is a great team, and I don't think we'll see one any better." Mulkey that day talked about her past with Summitt, who was her Olympic team coach in 1984. Mulkey said when she heard about Summitt's dementia diagnosis in August, she waited a few weeks for things to settle down before calling Summitt for a long chat.
"The bottom line is," Mulkey said, "I wanted her to understand how much I love her."
There will be no love lost, though, Monday when the teams meet with so much at stake. Tennessee beat Baylor 71-69 in the 2004 Sweet 16 after a controversial call that sent the Lady Vols' Tasha Butts to the foul line for the winning free throws with two-tenths of a second left. Fueled in part by that disappointment, Baylor came back to win the program's first NCAA title the next year.
In the 2010 Sweet 16, Baylor beat Tennessee 77-62 behind 27 points from then-freshman Griner. The Lady Bears followed that with a victory over Duke. But then at the Final Four in San Antonio, they were at an experience disadvantage against eventual champion UConn, which won their semifinal meeting 70-50.
This is a different Baylor team now, of course, with Griner a seasoned junior and the sophomore Sims running the show like an old pro.
Tennessee is young in the backcourt, led by sophomore Meighan Simmons and freshman Ariel Massengale, but there are five senior starters who are trying to send the Lady Vols to their first Final Four since 2008.
Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph got her program to the Sweet 16 for the first time this year, and she will have back freshman guard Sydney Wallace, who led the Yellow Jackets with 32 points Saturday.
Joseph complimented Baylor and said she had no problem at all with Griner's dunk. To the contrary, she said that Griner was, "Great for the game. I think it's awesome to see. I don't blame her I would never want to see a player limit themselves. She's elevated our game."
And all in the sport would agree that Summitt has done that to a legendary degree.
"It's going to be historical for a lot of reasons," Joseph said of the upcoming Tennessee-Baylor regional final. "It's a tremendous opportunity for people to come here, watch it live and be a part of it.
"If you talk about someone who's changed women's basketball forever, the first name that comes to my mind is Pat Summitt. And you talk about a player that has changed our game forever and has made a difference, you talk about Brittney Griner. It's unfortunate that one of them has to lose, because both those programs are so important to women's basketball."
17dBonnie D. Ford