INDIANAPOLIS, April 5 -- Tears ran down the face of Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson in the moments following the Lady Bears' dominating 84-62 victory over Michigan State in the NCAA women's basketball championship on Tuesday night, an expression of joy that contrasted sharply with the giddy, grinning pile of players flopping around the center of the RCA Dome court.
"It's just so unreal," Baylor junior guard Chameka Scott said. "We've been thinking about this since Day One, and it's actually happened. I haven't stopped smiling yet."
Final Four MVP Sophia Young celebrates two of her game-high 26 points as Baylor plows past Michigan State, 84-62, to claim the national title Tuesday night.
(Ed Reinke - AP)
The Lady Bears' victory in front of 28,937, by the second-most lopsided margin ever, completed a remarkable journey for the program and the university. A year ago, Baylor's NCAA tournament run ended with a loss on controversial last-second free throws against Tennessee in the round of 16. Two years ago, the university was known more for a scandal involving the murder of one of the men's basketball players. Five years ago, the Lady Bears were 7-20 and sitting at the bottom of the Big 12.
Now, they are the first Big 12 team, men's or women's, to win a national title in basketball.
"I'm not sure what people say about Baylor and I don't give a rip what people say about Baylor," said Mulkey-Robertson, who took over the Baylor program in 2000-01 and promptly led it to its first NCAA tournament appearance. "We're national champions. They probably said we didn't belong in the Big 12 [when it began play in 1996-97]. My guess is they're re-thinking that today."
Baylor (33-3) became the first team to win a national title in its first trip to the Final Four since North Carolina in 1994. The Lady Bears beat three number one seeds along the way -- North Carolina, LSU and Michigan State (33-4) -- to become only the fourth team, men's or women's, to do so. Mulkey-Robertson became the first woman to both play for and coach a national championship team; 23 years ago, she was the point guard as Louisiana Tech won the first-ever women's NCAA title.
The Lady Bears' inside dominance paved the way for their national championship. Junior forward Sophia Young, who was named the most outstanding player, scored 26 points and senior forward Steffanie Blackmon had 22. They found seams in Michigan State's matchup zone, pulling up for jump shots or slicing to the basket, and they fed each other for easy layups.
"We weren't going to let it become a perimeter game, you've got to get post touches against a zone," Mulkey-Robertson said. "You've got to do what got you here, and the post game got us here and we kept getting post touches."
The Spartans managed to overcome a poor rebounding performance in their national semifinal game, but their inability to corral missed shots was fatal against the Lady Bears. Baylor outrebounded Michigan State by a 45-22 margin (16-3 on the offensive side), and the Lady Bears scored 17 second-chance points (zero for Michigan State). Baylor's Latoya Wyatt, a 5-foot-7 guard, had six rebounds, more than any Spartans player.
The Lady Bears shut down Michigan State's Liz Shimek (seven points) and Kelli Roehrig (eight points), who were averaging a combined 28 points per game in the tournament. Young, Blackmon and Emily Niemann took turns guarding the two physical forwards, and refused to give them any easy looks at the basket.
Niemann, whom Michigan State Coach Joanne P. McCallie referred to as the "X-factor" during Monday's news conferences, was just that for Baylor, scoring 19 points (10 above her season average).
Baylor opened the game with turnovers on three of its first four possessions, but the Lady Bears settled down after Niemann sank two three-pointers from the left side. Niemann's outside shooting helped Baylor open up a 19-point lead; her fourth three-pointer gave the Lady Bears a 32-13 lead with 3 minutes 11 seconds left in the half.
But no lead is safe against Michigan State, a point that was proven on Sunday when the Spartans rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit to beat Tennessee. Sure enough, Michigan State ran off 10 points -- two three-pointers from Lindsay Bowen (20 points) and two drives from Kristin Haynie (17 points) -- to cut the lead to nine, 32-23.
But there would not be another stirring comeback for the Spartans; Baylor's inside dominance saw to that. The Lady Bears, whose fans had encouraged them throughout the season with signs reading "Finish the Job," did not let Michigan State get closer than nine points the rest of the way.
And as the clock wound down, a sign in the stands said it all: "The job is DONE, Lady Bears!"