DENVER — Brittney Griner doesn’t want a national championship because she’s particularly into jewelry.
She doesn’t want it to validate her place in the history of the women’s game, or in an attempt to prove something to somebody.
She wants it because she’s a competitor. She wants it because before she ever enrolled in her first class at Baylor, she promised Kim Mulkey that she’d win the coach another title.
“When I had already committed and I was coming, I said, ‘We’re going to win a national championship, Coach,’ ” Griner said. “If we don’t get that, I would feel like I let everybody down.”
Griner and the top-ranked Lady Bears get their opportunity to fulfill that promise when they clash with fellow No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the national championship game at 7:30 p.m. Central tonight, in front of a sold-out crowd at the Pepsi Center and a national TV audience to boot.
But the game offers more motivation than just that for Baylor.
It’s a chance to make history, as the first 40-0 team in the annals of NCAA basketball.
It’s an opportunity for the Lady Bears to seal a cap atop their unfinished business.
Moreover, it’s a chance to fulfill their dreams.
“It’s a dream come true for all of us,” forward Destiny Williams said. “We played with a lot of emotion, which brought us here. But we haven’t done anything yet until we bring home the championship on Tuesday. We still have unfinished business, and until we win the basketball game Tuesday all of this is just for nothing.”
Notre Dame (35-3) enters tonight’s title tilt with no shortage of gumption and desire, too. Not only do the Fighting Irish carry the memories of last year’s national final loss to Texas A&M, but they still feel the sting of a 94-81 loss to the Lady Bears in the Preseason WNIT final back in November.
To get another shot at Baylor? It’s the perfect opponent in more ways than one, the Irish said.
“It’s always nice to play a team that you lost to early on, especially at this point in the season, whenever your team is at their peak and playing their best game,” Notre Dame’s Devereaux Peters said. “So it would be nice to get that game back. And we were a completely different team back then.”
One of the most delicious side dishes to this national championship buffet is the point guard matchup. Notre Dame junior Skylar Diggins and Baylor sophomore Odyssey Sims are similarly special southpaw shooters, and their battle should make for entertaining theater.
Sims vs. Diggins
Sims got the better of the duel the first time around, scoring 25 points and poking away a career-high six steals. Though Diggins scored 27, she had Sims attached to her hip the whole game — “Odyssey is a gnat,” Mulkey said — and committed seven turnovers, including several in the second half as Baylor pulled away.
Late in that game, Sims and Diggins found themselves entangled on the floor, fighting for a loose ball. Sims signaled for a timeout while Diggins continued to claw for the ball, scratching Sims’ neck.
Sims jumped off the floor in a huff after that contact was made and was whistled for a technical foul. But both players said it was just a long-since-forgotten moment of heated competition.
“I’m just focusing on today and tomorrow,” Sims said. “What happened the first time we played really doesn’t matter, besides that we won. We’ve just got to stay focused.”
Notre Dame, with its four-guard starting lineup, failed miserably in its attempts to bottle up Griner in November. Griner neutralized the Irish’s sagging zone defense by scoring the first eight points of the game on her way to a game-high 32 points, 14 rebounds and five rejections.
So, was that a prequel to another Griner blockbuster?
“It’s got to be different than the last game because we didn’t do so well that time,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think you can’t let Griner just get 50. You can’t just let her go and try to guard her one-on-one. So you have to do something. You have to hope they shoot poorly. That’s what it comes down to.”
That said, McGraw envisions — or perhaps wishes for, given her team’s perimeter shooting talent — a high-scoring game similar to the first meeting.
Mulkey, ever the staunch defensive disciple, wasn’t so sure the game would resemble the first go-round, however. Not only was Notre Dame’s 81 points the most by a Baylor opponent this year, it marked the only time a team even cracked 70 against the “we’re-going-to-guard-you” Lady Bears.
“I’d say neither team played very good defense (the first time), did we?” Mulkey said. “I don’t anticipate it to be a high-scoring game. I think you’ll see two teams that will buckle down and guard each other. If it is high-scoring, I just hope we’re the one that has the most points.”
All the marbles
So it comes down to this — Notre Dame and Baylor, two proud institutions with deep religious ties, playing for the top prize in women’s college basketball.
Both are supremely talented, led by All-American captains.
Both are directed by veteran coaches who have climbed the ladder at the end of a Final Four before.
And both are still motivated, even a year later, by bitter losses to Texas A&M in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Griner was so devastated, so heartbroken, after last year’s defeat in the Elite Eight that she removed the battery from her cell phone, unwilling to receive any calls of consolation on that miserable bus ride back to Waco from Dallas.
She doesn’t want to relive that feeling again.
“We’ve just got to play our game,” Griner said. “We can’t go into the game overconfident and overlook Notre Dame. We can’t go in thinking we’re God Almighty and we’re just going to win the game. No one is going to hand it to us. We’ve got to fight for it.”
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