INDIANAPOLIS — The pain is over, baby. Let the party begin.
Baylor “finished the job” in convincing fashion Tuesday night, capping an unbelievable season of firsts with an 84-62 blowout of Michigan State and their first national championship before a crowd of 28,937 at the RCA Dome.
“Wow! We’re national champions!” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson, whose team ended the season on a 20-game winning streak to finish 33-3.
And finally, they celebrated.
The players dogpiled at halfcourt and then danced around the court before cutting down the nets in what has become a familiar scene after winning the Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships and NCAA tournament stops in Seattle and Tempe, Ariz.
“All night,” said junior all-American Sophia Young, when asked if they could celebrate now. “We don’t have anything to worry about anymore. So this is definitely a celebration tonight.”
The Lady Bears’ long journey began with last year’s frustrating Sweet 16 loss to Tennessee and ended with one of the most lopsided finals in the history of the NCAA tournament.
“Baylor played super, we played average, and you really can’t do that at this level,” said Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose team finished with a 33-4 record after having its 17-game winning streak snapped. “That’s just the bottom line.”
Young was at her dominating best, finishing with 26 points, nine rebounds and four assists to earn the tournament’s most outstanding player award.
“She’s just so graceful,” McCallie said. “She’s just a beautiful student-athlete, the way she moves and all that. I think she’s the best player that we have seen all year. That kid’s an all-American.”
But this was far from a one-woman show.
Senior post Steffanie Blackmon bounced back from a disappointing semifinal game with 22 points and seven boards, while sophomore forward Emily Niemann knocked down five three-pointers and chipped in with 19 points.
Those three alone outscored the Spartans, 67-62, but the Lady Bears also got key contributions from senior point guard Chelsea Whitaker (six assists and five rebounds), sophomore guard Latoya Wyatt (eight points and six boards) and junior guard Chameka Scott (seven points, four rebounds and three assists).
“Steffanie and Sophia are all-Americans, and we know what they bring every night,” Mulkey-Robertson said. “What the country fails to realize is they’re not the only two players we have. How about Abiola Wabara, Emily Niemann, Latoya Wyatt, Chameka Scott? Every one of those ladies contributed, and that’s how we won the national championship.”
More than anything, they won it with defense and rebounding. Baylor completely frustrated the Spartans’ inside duo of Liz Shimek and Kelli Roehrig and won the battle of the boards, 45-22 — the second-largest rebounding margin ever in a championship game.
“We got a lot of long rebounds, and we also used our guards to go get a lot of tough rebounds down deep,” Mulkey-Robertson said. “There was one point there when Emily Niemann had blocked her girl out and Emily couldn’t get it, but she made sure, by God, that her girl wasn’t going to get to it. I love seeing things like that. It was a total team effort in everything we did tonight.”
The Lady Bears took control from the start, reeling off eight unanswered points to take a 20-8 lead on a Scott jumper from just inside the three-point line.
Niemann, who scored Baylor ‘s first six points on a pair of treys, hit two more in a 10-1 run that stretched the lead to 32-13 with 3:13 left in the first half.
“If you look at the film, the kid is three feet off the line,” McCallie said. “We definitely had her scouted and ready to in-face contest her, but she hit a couple of threes that were unbelievable. I think she was the whole key to this game. If you take No. 51 off the floor, it’s a whole different game. She was definitely the X factor.”
Like they did in a semifinal win over Tennessee, the Spartans made a run and cut the deficit to single digits, 32-23, on a reverse layup by Kristin Haynie.
But again, Niemann answered. Whitaker penetrated inside and then kicked it back to Niemann, who nailed a three-pointer that gave the Lady Bears a 37-25 halftime lead.
“When Emily hit that first shot, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s on,’ ” Young said. “She knocked down those two big threes for us and we knew that she was going to be hot for the rest of the night.”
The second half belonged to the post tandem of Blackmon and Young. After scoring a combined 16 points in the first half, they were 12-of-22 from the field in the second half and scored 32 points.
“They’re two terrific post players,” McCallie said. “I think the interesting thing about them is they don’t really have to use the low block at all. They can go anywhere. And that makes it much harder to double them, because they’re constantly moving. I just thought they were beautiful.”
Michigan State scored the first three points of the second half and got it back within nine again, but they never got that close again. Young scored five points in a 10-2 run, including a spin move inside off an assist from Blackmon, that extended the Lady Bears’ lead to 62-42.
“I reminded them at the eight-minute mark when we were up double figures pretty good that this game wasn’t over,” Mulkey-Robertson said. “At the five-minute mark, still said the same thing. That’s just the way I coach. If you think the game is won, you need to sit down by me and let me put somebody on the floor that understands. You just keep plugging away, you keep playing.”
Mulkey-Robertson didn’t let up until the last two minutes, when she started emptying her bench. By the end, all 14 players had played in the Lady Bears’ first national title game.
“When you can play your entire team in a national championship game,” Mulkey-Robertson said, “and those young ladies get an opportunity to run down that floor and dribble the ball, what a wonderful feeling.”