TAMPA — At the end of Baylor’s long, glittering season of sustained excellence, it seemed right that the Bears would want to show off one last asset, pulled from an arsenal positively bursting with them. It fit that they would want to flaunt their survival skills on top of all the rest.
To be fair, they had little choice. Notre Dame, the 2018 champion and a No. 1 seed, tested the Bears as they had rarely been tested. But No. 1 overall seed Baylor held on for an 82-81 win Sunday night at Amalie Arena thanks to its characteristic defensive muscle, lights-out shooting and a helpful nudge from a missed free throw by Fighting Irish standout Arike Ogunbowale in the game’s final seconds.
The Bears (37-1) capped a near-perfect season with the program’s third national title, and consensus national coach of the year Kim Mulkey joined Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma (11) and former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt (eight) in the ultraexclusive club of women’s basketball coaches with at least three national championships.
When the confetti fell, Mulkey FaceTimed with her son, cut down the net with her daughter and grandson on the ladder with her, then came to her postgame news conference and did something she seldom does. “I’m going to give an opening statement tonight,” she said, laughing. “I may never get this chance again. . . . Just a great game for women’s basketball.”
Baylor added to its crown from 2005, when it beat Michigan State, and its crown from 2012, when it beat Notre Dame — although it was easier that time.
On Sunday, with the Bears having lost starting forward Lauren Cox to an injury in the third quarter, the Fighting Irish (35-4) had Mulkey stalking near the half-court line.
Notre Dame rebounded from a 14-point deficit in the second half to tie the score with 16 seconds to play, but a driving layup from 2014 All-Met Player of the Year Chloe Jackson with 3.9 seconds remaining put Baylor ahead by two. Ogunbowale, the breakout star of last year’s Final Four, was fouled on the other end and missed a free throw with 1.9 seconds left. She tried to miss the second but made it anyway, and time ran out before anyone could make a play.
Mulkey explained her mind-set just before Ogunbowale drew the foul: “If you remember, they had no timeouts. They go out there, get set, I call a timeout. What did I tell [my team] at that point? I was trying to make a decision: Do I leave Moon [Ursin], who hadn’t been in the game much, on [Ogunbowale] with that speed, quickness? She’s a strong kid. Or do I move Juicy [Landrum] on her? That was the first decision I was trying to make. The second decision I was trying to tell Moon is, ‘Whatever you do, give up a two but don’t give up a three.’ Then I told her to be alert to the down screen.”
The Fighting Irish closed their season one victory away from the program’s 1,000th win, and Ogunbowale ended her spectacular college career with a game-high 31 points to lead four Notre Dame scorers in double figures. All four — point guard Marina Mabrey (21 points), forward Brianna Turner (12 points, 12 rebounds) and forward Jessica Shepard (11 points, 10 rebounds) were the others — will graduate this year. Notre Dame’s other starter, junior Jackie Young, may leave early for the WNBA. She has until Monday night to inform the league of her decision before Wednesday’s draft.
Either way, the loss marks the dissolution of a historic group of players. The five Notre Dame starters combined for 10,230 career points, the most in Division I history — women’s or men’s.
“Knowing what this group has meant to us, it makes it tougher to lose this way,” Coach Muffet McGraw said.
This championship game was jammed with staggering statistics such as that, a testament to the star power and depth of both teams.
Baylor improved to 3-0 in national title games, and Sunday’s victory brings the Bears to a nice, round 50 NCAA tournament wins. Their 53.8 percent shooting from the field over both games this weekend ranked as the third-highest two-game total in women’s Final Four history.
Baylor’s success in the title game was no surprise. The Bears dominated their competition throughout the season and fell just once, at Stanford in December. Mulkey’s team possessed a type of indefatigable might that Mulkey had seen before — when her team tore through a perfect 40-0 season to win the national title in 2012.
Still, the Bears had to get creative Sunday to survive. When NaLyssa Smith fouled out, Mulkey played a four-guard lineup for what she said was the first time all season. Baylor, not known for its perimeter shooting, had to put up shots over a zone defense. The Bears jumped on a poor Notre Dame start to take a 15-5 lead in the first quarter before they controlled much of the night.
Still, the crowd of 20,127 knew better than to get comfortable watching a Fighting Irish team that won its national title last year on a buzzer-beater by Ogunbowale.
The game’s tenor changed when Cox fell under Notre Dame’s basket with 1:22 to play in the third quarter; she grabbed her left knee and rolled around on the court. The arena went quiet, and Mulkey walked over to hold her close before the forward left the court in tears in a wheelchair.
“I could cry right now,” Mulkey told ESPN’s Holly Rowe on the broadcast, “but I have to go work.”
Prevailing without Cox in the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame is often at its strongest, was no small feat for Baylor. Mulkey trusted Jackson — the Riverdale Baptist graduate whose family members in the stands sported shirts featuring her face — with the ball at the end despite four fouls. Jackson transferred twice and changed from her natural position of shooting guard to handle point guard at Baylor, and she ended her college career with a season-high 26 points.
“I just looked at Coach Mulkey,” Jackson said. “She was like, ‘You have four.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I got you.’ ”
Baylor senior center Kalani Brown added 20 points and 13 rebounds. Smith, stepping up for Cox late, had 14 points.
“It’s definitely going to be hard leaving Baylor, but I left on a good note,” Brown said. “I just want to thank Coach Mulkey for choosing me because this is the best thing ever. . . . I’m just glad to be a part of this team.”
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