TAMPA — After all the talk of gender equality and women in coaching, sparked by Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw, that has dominated headlines at this Final Four, look where we ended up: With two female coaches in the national title game for the first time since 2012.

One, McGraw, the defending champion whose Fighting Irish defeated Connecticut on Friday night for the second year in a row in the national semifinals, danced on the court a jig in red high heels after her team clinched a return to the title game.

The other, Kim Mulkey, whose Baylor Bears won the national title in 2012 and beat Oregon earlier Friday in Baylor’s first Final Four game since, stayed crouched on the sidelines after her team’s win. It is her preferred coaching stance during games, and Friday, she froze there at the final buzzer.

“Hell, I’m too old to get up,” Mulkey joked Saturday morning.

In reality, the Associated Press’s national coach of the year was taking a mental snapshot of her team, appreciating the moment after seven years trying to get back to the national title game.

“I just wanted to watch 'em,” said Mulkey, who also waited seven years between her first NCAA title-game appearance, in 2005, and her second. “I think one of my assistants came behind and said, ‘Coach, get up.’”

There was no such pause for McGraw, who since the fall of 2017 has been in a constant cycle of either trying to win a national title or trying to defend one.

“We came into the season with all that on us — No. 1, defending champs,” McGraw said. “Sometimes defending champs aren’t really, because they don’t have their team back. But we did. We truly were the defending champs. It was a burden.”

Make no mistake, the two women battling for the title are no ordinary coaches. When Mulkey, 56 years old and in her 19th season helming No. 1 overall seed Baylor (36-1), goes up against McGraw, the 63-year-old who has led No. 1 seed Notre Dame (35-3) since 1987, it’s intra-class warfare.

Both will be vying for their third national championship. The pair dwell in the same upper echelon of women’s basketball as two of just six coaches with multiple NCAA women’s tournament titles (the others are Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Southern Cal’s Linda Sharp and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer).

Only Auriemma (11) and Summitt (eight) have more than two. And only Auriemma, Summitt and Sharp have won consecutive national titles, which is what McGraw is trying to accomplish.

“Let me put it in perspective,” Mulkey said. “How many national championships has Muffet won? How many have I won? How long has she been coaching? How many years? I don’t know. Probably a heck of a lot longer than me.

“Does that tell you how hard it is? It's hard. It is so hard to win championships. You can be the favorite and not win 'em. I've been the favorite and not won 'em. I've been the underdog and won 'em. There are no guarantees in this business. That's why you cherish the moment.”

Mulkey carries into the title game a new sense of perspective. As a coach, she said a few things haven’t changed since here last visit. Players must still be held accountable, and over every season she must still adjust to her team’s personality.

What has changed is Mulkey’s appreciation for family. She mentioned Saturday how important it was that for the first time in her 35-year coaching career, each of her players’ parents are in the stands because of a new NCAA rule that pays up to $3,000 per athlete for their families to travel to the Final Four.

Mulkey lost a grandchild when her daughter Makenzie Fuller, Baylor’s associate director of operations, gave birth to a stillborn child at the beginning of last season. Fuller gave birth to a healthy boy in October — baby Kannon is commonly seen in news conferences and on the sideline with Mulkey after wins.

“You bet I’m going to hang onto him. Holding a child up here,” Mulkey said, motioning to the dais, “is a heck of a lot more touching than holding one . . . that’s deceased. I’ve done both in the last year and a half.”

McGraw has changed since her last championship, too, having decided to launch into a role as a spokeswoman for the game and for women in sport.

“I think when we lost Pat Summitt we lost an icon, we also did lose the spokeswoman for our game,” McGraw said. “ … You looked around and wondered who would step up, maybe it would be sort of a point-guard-by-committee kind of thing that you have in your game sometimes. I’ve just felt the need to be able to stand up and express some things that I thought needed to be said.”

Mulkey, every bit the icon at Baylor that McGraw is at Notre Dame, responded to McGraw’s statement that she never wants to hire a male coach again. The Baylor coach said she understands McGraw’s point about opportunities for women in coaching — “Statistics are glaring,” Mulkey said — but shies away from using the word “never,” because she has a son and would be honored if he wanted to coach women’s basketball.

That’s how Saturday’s media day went. News conferences for these two titans of college basketball meandered from tactical questions to personal questions to queries about the state of the game and women’s empowerment.

And of the lasting impact that both McGraw, with her 923 career wins, and Mulkey, with her 575, have had on the game, the Notre Dame coach said: “We’ve seen it change so much. I’m a lot older than Kim. I’ve seen the changes from playing, what the Final Fours were like when she was playing and I was watching. It’s been amazing how far we’ve come. I know we still have a long way to go.”

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