OKLAHOMA CITY — From the opening tip of the season, there was only one question in women’s college basketball: How do you stop Brittney Griner?
Louisville found the answer Sunday night, pulling off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament.
Considered a lock for the Final Four — and prohibitive favorites to win a second straight championship — Griner and her Lady Bears got bounced 82-81 by fifth-seeded Louisville in an NCAA regional semifinal.
“I’m just sad,” Griner said. “I didn’t do what I needed to do to get my team to the Elite Eight and just disappointment in myself.”
Baylor (34-2) had won 32 straight games and 74 of 75 behind Griner, among the greatest players ever in her sport. But the 6-foot-8 star didn’t make a basket until the second half, then committed a foul with 2.6 seconds left that gave Louisville a chance to win.
Monique Reid made those two foul shots, rescuing the Cardinals (27-8) after they squandered a 17-point lead in the last 7½ minutes.
The win made it quite a day for the school — hours earlier, the men’s team from Louisville beat Duke 85-63 to reach the Final Four.
Reid and the Cardinals will play Tennessee in the regional final Tuesday for a berth in the Final Four.
Odyssey Sims scored 29 points, including two free throws with 9.1 seconds to go that put Baylor ahead 81-80. Sims had one more chance to save the season, but she was off-target and late on a desperation heave.
Sims dropped to the floor after her miss, pulling her jersey over her face and kicking her legs as she lay flat on her back.
Griner squatted near her and slapped the floor with both hands before pulling Sims up to her feet.
It was a stunning end of a remarkable college career for Griner, the second-highest scoring player in NCAA history. She also holds the career records for blocks and dunks.
“It’s a tough way to lose,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “It’s hard to lose when it’s your last game, but it’s even harder the way that game ended. Makes it a little tougher.”
Griner, who had averaged 33 points in Baylor’s first two games in the tournament, didn’t make a basket until she converted a putback with 15 minutes 20 seconds left in the second half. She wound up with 14 points and 10 rebounds, making only four of her 10 shots and being a relative non-factor for her considerable stature.
Louisville surrounded Griner as she has been most of her career, using a zone defense Louisville coach Jeff Walz called the “claw and one.” He put one player in front of Griner and another behind her, and often another one in the vicinity.
“I think I could smell what toothpaste she used,” Antonita Slaughter said. “I was in her face the whole time with my hands up.”
Unusually, Griner’s teammates were unable to hit outside shots and relieve the pressure.
That wasn’t a problem for the Cardinals, who scored 11 more points than anyone else against Baylor this season. They tied the NCAA tournament mark for 3-pointers reached by four other teams and made the most ever in the regional semifinals or beyond.
“Our goal was to score, score and score. I told our kids if we had to take 40 to 50 3s we would,” Walz said. “I don’t know if we could go out there right now 5-on-0 and go 16-of-25, but we did it in the biggest game of the year for us and now we’re going to hopefully keep our momentum going and see what we can do on Tuesday.”
The Lady Bears had been practically invincible for the past four months since losing to Stanford on Nov. 16. Baylor, which went 40-0 last season, had won the next 32 straight games mostly by double digits.
It’s no surprise that the Louisville women were a 24-point underdog to Baylor in Las Vegas casinos, according to gambling expert R.J. Bell of Pregame.com. Odds on Louisville to win outright were 75-1, paying $7,500 on a $100 wager, Bell said.
It was Sims who eventually led Baylor’s attempted comeback from a 17-point deficit in the final 7½ minutes, after Louisville’s barrage of 3-pointers finally came to an end.
Sims hit a pair of free throws and then got a steal in the backcourt for a layup that got Baylor back within a dozen, and the Lady Bears put together a 19-4 run to get within striking distance in the final 2 minutes.
Walz was called for a technical foul for arguing after he watched a scoreboard replay of an offensive foul whistled against Bria Smith, with a Baylor defender sliding under her after she took off.
Sims hit the resulting free throws and then a runner to get the Lady Bears within 78-76 with 1:49 to play.
After a Megan Deines layup off a baseline inbounds play, Sims answered with a 3-pointer to cut it to one with 35.8 seconds left. She then hit two free throws to put Baylor ahead after Jude Schimmel fumbled an inbounds pass under her own basket, Griner picked it up and passed it to Sims.
The Lady Bears still couldn’t close it out.
“That’s pretty remarkable,” Mulkey said. “You’re supposed to get blown out if you get 16 3s, and we didn’t get blown out.”
Mulkey criticized the game officials, saying she didn’t care if she got fined, even after Louisville was called for 23 fouls compared to 14 for the Lady Bears. The Cardinals also had three starters foul out. Griner said she thought she got all ball on Reid’s final drive.
“I thought the game started out way too physical, way too physical,” Mulkey said. “I thought that all three of them, if they go past this round of officiating, it will be sad for the game.”
Slaughter hit seven 3-pointers for 21 points and Shoni Schimmel had five 3s.
“Every 3 that they hit when we would cut the lead made it that much tougher. You keep thinking through the course of the game that they’re going to start missing some,” Mulkey said. “But they never did.”