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Supporting casts step up

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was no surprise to see Baylor coach Kim Mulkey react to a successful offensive sequence by pirouetting partway toward the crowd and pumping a fist in exaltation during the second half of her team's Sweet 16 game Friday night. It wasn't all that surprising to see her do it again just a few minutes later. You need only read body language on a kindergarden level to know what Mulkey is thinking at any given moment during a basketball game.

Even she acknowledged, "I'm not responsible sometimes for what I do or see or say on that sideline."

It was more surprising to see Baylor senior Sune Agbuke show similar emotion, minus the pirouette, after knocking down a shot. Surprising because while she is one of the team's primary pranksters behind the scenes, Agbuke does not emote on the court the same way her coach does on the sideline. And surprising because of the shot Agbuke hit.

Nobody was more surprised than Iowa about that last part.

Just as nobody was more dismayed than Stanford to see Notre Dame point guard Lindsay Allen knock down shot after shot in the night's second game.

To see Allen pull an Agbuke, so to speak.

Agbuke had 23 points and 12 rebounds in Baylor's 81-66 win against Iowa, the points a career high in her final season. Allen followed suit in her team's 81-60 win against Stanford, the sophomore's 28 points a career high. Now their two teams will meet in a regional final for the second year in a row.

Iowa and Stanford searched for vulnerabilities, tried to find some way to slow the top two seeds. They devoted energy and bodies to defending All-Americans, Baylor's Nina Davis and Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd, and dared other players to beat them.

They met with mixed results on the former. The latter plan proved a poison pill.

"I think the greatest feeling you have as a player is getting to come through for your team," Agbuke said. "Any opportunity you have to do that, you get to come through for your team, and that's just the best feeling."

Agbuke's story is a contrast of pace, rapid progression academically contrasted with a more deliberate ascension athletically. She graduated from Baylor in three years and is already enrolled in law school. She also averaged just 6.3 minutes per game over her first two seasons and scored a total of 32 points as a sophomore. But beginning a season ago and continuing this season, she emerged as a defensive presence in the post-Brittney Griner world for the Lady Bears. Projected over 40 minutes, a total she never comes close to reaching both because of fouls and a summer knee injury that may yet require surgery, she entered Friday's game averaging 4.7 blocks and 12.2 rebounds.

Her role against Iowa seemed likely to be shutting off Ally Disterhoft's drives, making Bethany Doolittle work and ensuring Iowa's season-long rebounding woes continued.

"If we have to make choices, we want Sune's contributions for this team to be on the defensive end versus the offensive end," Baylor associate head coach Bill Brock said. "When they can be both ends, that's gravy. The offensive end is just gravy because she makes us a totally different defensive presence when she's on the floor for us on that end of the court."

But with Iowa's Doolittle, a talented offensive player and a shot-blocking presence, in early foul trouble, Agbuke didn't have to expend as much energy on the defensive end as might otherwise have been true. And when Iowa's zone defense offered up a series of shots from the elbows, Agbuke never hesitated.

"When Sune has fresh legs, she has very, very good shooting range," Brock said. "She's a good free throw shooter, she can shoot the ball well from the free throw line area and also the baseline, the short corner area. So to see those shots go in did not surprise me at all. To see her have that many shot opportunities sort of did surprise me.

"But I was very, very pleased that she did not shy away from the moment. Sune Agbuke played like a senior who did not want her season to end tonight."

Davis was good, reaching 20 points almost quietly, as only great players seem to be able to. Niya Johnson was spectacular, the point guard totaling 16 assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes. But Iowa could have lived with those performances. It died with Agbuke's.

"She's usually known as a defensive player, but she decided to switch it up tonight and kill it on offense," Baylor's Kristy Wallace said. "Everyone respects Sune, and I'm so stoked to see her do really well tonight."

Wallace helped fuel that performance, too, the freshman another unpleasant surprise for the Hawkeyes when they tried to test Baylor's shooters with a zone defense.

"We were looking to flash the bigs middle, flash the guards middle," Wallace said. "But we knew we had to hit shots from the outside to spread them out so that the middle got bigger. And we were able to attack them in that area."

They were able to spread them out, able to open the space that Agbuke made effective use of, in part because Wallace hit her first seven shots, including a pair of 3-pointers, en route to 17 points. Like Agbuke, she showed no reluctance to make the most of a moment that proves too big for many.

"Kristy has been doing that all year," Mulkey said.

At the risk of contradicting the coach, no, the freshman hasn't. As Baylor's coach went on to say, she has four perimeter players in the primary rotation and any one of Wallace, Johnson, Alexis Prince or Imani Wright can come up big in a given game. But that also means any one of them can fade into the background -- or the bench. Wallace talked about a shooter always having to believe the next shot will fall. That's easier said than done when the next shot may be a game away. Keeping that confidence has been a challenge for a freshman a continent removed from home.

"Honestly, it has been. It's hard to have that mentality when you're having bad days. But I think that you learn from every experience, and this year I've learned a lot. I've been up, I've been down, and I've always just had to have that right mindset."

Speaking of which, on a night when the two point guards in the first game put on a playmaking show for the ages -- Baylor's Johnson and Iowa All-American Samantha Logic combining for 30 assists and one turnover -- a player known for setting up others showed off a different kind of mindset in Notre Dame's win.

With Loyd, like Davis, scoring 21 points in what Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer lamented might not even have been the star's "A" or "B" game, Allen blew up Stanford's best laid plans. Unwilling to be stretched with Loyd and Brianna Turner lurking elsewhere on the court, the Cardinal time and again went under screens and gave Allen open jump shots from the top of the key to the free throw line. Time and again, she knocked them down. She scored 24 points in the first half alone.

This was not the freshman of a season ago.

"I think she's a point guard first, so she's a pass-first point guard," said Notre Dame assistant coach and former standout point guard Nielle Ivey. "And last year you have Natalie Achonwa, you have Kayla McBride, you have Jewell. So she probably did feel like she was the fourth option, not in a negative way, but just she was more a distributor. She didn't have to score."

If she had been presented with those same shots at this stage a season ago, would she have still been comfortable calling her own number with such regularity?

"I want to say kind of," Allen said. "I would have definitely hesitated a little bit more, but if I was wide-open, I still would have taken it last year, for sure."

The moment called for the mindset this time.

With about seven minutes left, Hannah Huffman hit a jump shot that pushed Notre Dame's lead that had recently been in single digits to 15 points. She had seconds earlier assisted on a basket by Turner and seconds before that converted a layup off a Cardinal turnover. Not all that many minutes before those three plays, as Stanford tried to build a rally, she played a pick-and-roll to perfection, stayed with Bonnie Samuelson and got a hand in her face on a long attempt that fell short of the rim.

When Huffman's own jumper forced Stanford to call a timeout to regroup, her teammates wasted no time showing their appreciation for her play. Loyd got to her first with a chest bump, followed soon by Allen, who was wearing a grin far wider than those that came after any of the shots she made on the night. But after them came much of the bench, led by Markeisha Wright and Whitney Holloway, seniors who played sparingly, if at all.

All of that for a player who averages just 11 minutes per game this season but made the most of 20 minutes this night.

"We're all just really excited for Hannah because she made three great plays in a row," Allen said. "It's just the whole team being really excited for a role player like Hannah."

That's the kind of night it was.

A night for two of the best players in college basketball to join celebrations rather than be the cause of them all the time.

And a night that will cause Mulkey and McGraw to scratch off two more vulnerabilities in their next opponent.

It's a dwindling list.