DENVER — The business trip is over.
It couldn’t have ended more perfectly for the Baylor Lady Bears.
And now, at long last, they can finally cut loose and party.
The top-ranked Lady Bears put the finishing touches on a perfect year by trouncing Notre Dame, 80-61, in the national championship game before a sold-out crowd of 19,028 at the Pepsi Center Tuesday night.
Baylor’s unfinished business — a motto the Lady Bears adopted following last year’s Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M — is complete. Baylor wins its second national title in school history, and becomes the first team in NCAA history, women’s or men’s, to go 40-0 in a season.
“You know, at Baylor they’re not used to letting the Baptists dance,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who became the fifth coach in women’s basketball history to win multiple NCAA titles. “I bet they’re dancing now.”
When the final horn sounded and the confetti snowflakes began to descend, Baylor’s players stormed the floor and met in a jubilant group hug at center court.
“I was just hugging my teammates,” Brittney Griner said. “I had tears in my eyes. We finally did it. Unfinished business was over. And I was just ready to be with my team and hug them all.”
While giddily fulfilling their own dreams, the Lady Bears crushed the hopes of Notre Dame (35-4), which lost in the national championship game for the second straight season.
“I feel a little numb right now,” Notre Dame senior Natalie Novosel said. “To get all the way back to this point hurts the most because we came up short once again.”
Like so many teams, Notre Dame couldn’t conjure up a defense to box in Griner, the tallest and most overpowering player in the land. Griner scored easily over the Irish’s double and triple teams, finishing with 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the floor.
She also plucked 13 rebounds out of the sky and turned back five of Notre Dame’s shots for good measure, winning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
“Brittney Griner, whether she won today or not, will go down in the history of the women’s game as if not the greatest post player, one of the greatest,” Mulkey said. “I’m so glad she has that ring now.”
Like a tailgating sports car on the highway, Notre Dame hung behind Baylor’s bumper for most of the game. When Natalie Achonwa scored on a cut to the basket and completed a three-point play with 11:25 to play, the Irish trailed by only six, 54-48.
But, ultimately, objects in the rearview mirror weren’t closer than they appeared. Baylor began to pull away down the stretch, breaking off a 15-2 run that effectively crushed Notre Dame’s spirit.
When Odyssey Sims splashed in a 3-pointer from the wing with 8:17 to go, the Lady Bears opened up a 64-50 lead, and the Irish were through.
“They went on a run there,” Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins said. “I remember we had it down to five or three, and then they went on a run. And I saw 10, 12, 14, 16, 19. We couldn’t get stops.”
Notre Dame is unconventional in that it starts a four-guard lineup, with 6-foot-2 senior Devereaux Peters serving as the only frontcourt starter. With that in mind, one big key for Baylor was coaxing Peters into foul trouble. She picked up her third foul with 4:39 to go in the first half, and finished with just seven points and three rebounds in 15 minutes.
“I thought we did a great job getting her in foul trouble because she helped Notre Dame out with rebounds and blocked shots,” Baylor’s Destiny Williams said. “We had to rebound. We couldn’t allow them to get second-chance points.”
Odyssey Sims deftly ran the show as Baylor’s quarterback, scoring 19 points, corralling seven rebounds and delivering four assists before fouling out with 1:58 to play.
Williams chipped in 12 points and six boards for Baylor, including four on the offensive glass. Williams and Sims joined Griner on the all-tournament team, along with Notre Dame’s Diggins and Stanford’s Nneka Ogwumike.
Diggins, the Irish’s All-American point guard, gamely tried to keep her team in it with some swift perimeter shooting, finishing with a team-high 20 points. Kayla McBride contributed 11.
Showing aggression and composure at the same time, the Lady Bears overpowered Notre Dame on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 46-27. At times, Baylor used its three-post lineup with Griner, Williams and Brooklyn Pope on the court together. Pope gave the team a spark in her 12 minutes of action, picking up eight points and four rebounds, and delighted her teammates on the bench by sinking all four of her free throw attempts.
Fitting for such a heavyweight clash, the teams seemed to feel each other out in the early going, swapping jabs back and forth. Notre Dame relied on crisp ball movement to score in its half-court offense, including a pretty Diggins dish to Peters for a quick basket on the pick-and-roll.
Baylor, meanwhile, relied on its potent mix of hustle and muscle to score inside, with Williams crashing the offensive glass for putbacks on the first two possessions.
Getting out in the open court, the Lady Bears started to gain some separation thereafter, building their lead to as much as 14 with about seven minutes to play in the half.
But Notre Dame, the Big East regular season champion, didn’t fade away, fighting back to within six by halftime after a late 3-pointer from Brittany Mallory.
But the second half — and the national championship — belonged to Baylor. Nae-Nae Hayden and Terran Condrey knocked down some pretty jumpers. Griner consistently carved out deep position in the post and scored.
After the Lady Bears pushed the lead past 20, Mulkey cleared her bench with about a minute to play, sending in Lindsay Palmer, Ashley Field, Makenzie Robertson and Sune Agbuke to join Hayden for the final moments.
Finally, with the clock winding down, the ball ended up in Palmer’s hands and she held it until the horn sounded and she could fling it skyward in celebration.
For Baylor, there are no more practices in the 2011-12 season. No more games. No more business to complete.
There’s nothing left to do but enjoy their time on the throne as unbeaten, undaunted, unbelievable national champions.
“It’s just a fun time,” Mulkey said. “And I look forward to going back (to Waco). This is for Baylor. This is for everything that you can do for a university, is play at the highest level. And Baylor is doing that, not just in women’s basketball, but in all sports.”
BEAR FACTS: Baylor is planning a post-championship rally at the Ferrell Center at 3:30 p.m. today. Doors will open at 3 p.m. Fans are encouraged to attend the rally at the Ferrell Center rather than meet the team at the airport, as they will head straight to the rally.