DENVER — As an April snowstorm blanketed Denver, a coronation took place inside the Pepsi Center.
The crown fit Baylor perfectly. You don’t get more perfect than 40-0.
With a convincing 80-61 win over Notre Dame, Baylor completed its unbeaten season in grand style Tuesday night. Though the Fighting Irish tried to hang with the Lady Bears, the game ended like most for this supremely talented and determined team.
For the 35th time this season, the Lady Bears won by double digits, including all six NCAA tournament games. That’s clear and complete domination.
This wasn’t like Kim Mulkey’s first national championship team at Baylor when her team pulled upsets throughout the 2005 NCAA tournament. Picked in the preseason to win it all this year, the Lady Bears ran the table.
“The difference with this team is that we didn’t come through the backdoor,” Mulkey said. “Expectations were placed on us and we embraced it. I couldn’t hide the talent in that locker room that I got to coach.”
With the win, Baylor became the first Texas men’s or women’s Division I basketball program to win two NCAA championships. Mulkey put herself among an elite group of five coaches across the country with multiple NCAA women’s basketball titles.
After collecting 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots, national player of the year Brittney Griner was overjoyed to win it all after last season ended with a loss to Texas A&M in the Elite Eight.
“We wanted this national championship because it’s what we promised Coach Mulkey when we got here,” Griner said. “I was just hugging my teammates’ necks. Our unfinished business is over.”
The Lady Bears became just the seventh team to go unbeaten in NCAA women’s basketball history. So let the debate begin. Where does Baylor stand among the all-time great women’s basketball teams?
The Lady Bears won their games by an average of nearly 27 points and were one of the highest scoring teams in college basketball with a 78-point average.
But the biggest reason Baylor went unbeaten was by playing lockdown defense game after game. There’s no question the Lady Bears were one of the greatest defensive
teams to ever step on a college basketball court.
With the 6-8 Griner swatting away shots like flies, the paint was off-limits to anybody who tried to drive inside. But the Lady Bears were just as dominating outside as guards like Odyssey Sims, Jordan Madden and Kimetria Hayden played great perimeter defense.
While opponents shot barely more than 30 percent, the Lady Bears dominated the boards. Even on nights when the Lady Bears’ offense wasn’t on target like Sunday’s 59-47 win over Stanford in the national semifinals, the defense pulled them through.
“Our defense is one of a kind,” Baylor forward Destiny Williams said. “We frustrated opponents. We made every shot a hard one. Our defense led us all year.”
Baylor had everything going on both ends of the court against Notre Dame.
With Griner hitting 11 of 16 field goals, the Fighting Irish couldn’t stop Baylor for any sustained time. Griner’s inside presence gave Sims room to work as she collected 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The Lady Bears got plenty of help all around as Williams finished with 12 points and Brooklyn Pope and Hayden chipped in eight apiece.
While the Lady Bears hit 50 percent of their shots, they limited a strong Notre Dame offensive team to 35.5 percent shooting. Baylor allowed opponents to shoot more than 40 percent in only three games this season, and no one has hit 50 percent against the Lady Bears since 2006.
From the outset, it was clear the game wasn’t going to be a 94-81 shootout like the first Baylor-Notre Dame game in November.
But as well as the Lady Bears played, they didn’t begin pulling away from Notre Dame until midway through the second half when Griner and Sims inspired a 21-2 run to open up a 75-50 lead.
Griner buried two turnaround jumpers and drew a foul on the second one. After hitting the free throw, a shaky six-point lead suddenly expanded to 13. Then Sims took over as she buried a pair of 3-pointers and got inside twice for layups.
Her second layup was a thing of beauty as Madden threw an inbounds pass to Griner who flipped the ball perfectly to Sims. That play said everything about Baylor’s teamwork.
After it was over, Griner led a rush to midcourt to kick off the celebration. As confetti rained down from above, the Lady Bears put on their national championship T-shirts and hoisted their trophy. Then they all took turns cutting down the nets.
This highly motivated team met and embraced all expectations that Mulkey and the public placed on them throughout the year. Tuesday’s lopsided win was their crowning moment.
“Coach Mulkey kept us motivated and made us play harder,” Sims said. “To win this national championship, I’m probably happier for her than for ourselves. Coach did a great job all year.”
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