Baylor edges Notre Dame to cap near-perfect season
Jackson’s driving layup makes Bears champs
Throughout Baylor’s long, glittering season of sustained excellence, the Bears hadn’t seen a team like Notre Dame. Sure, there was that loss at Stanford back in December, the blemish that coach Kim Mulkey spitshined away with such diligence that her team entered Sunday’s national title game with a sparkling 28-game winning streak. But Stanford was not as well-rounded as the Fighting Irish, nor as determined.
Defending champion Notre Dame tested the Bears as they had rarely been tested this season, rebounding from a 14-point deficit in the second half to tie the score with 16 seconds to play.
But a driving layup from Chloe Jackson put Baylor up two, and Arike Ogunbowale, the breakout star of last year’s Final Four, missed a free throw with a second remaining.
With their 82-81 win, the No. 1 overall seed Bears survived to cap a near-perfect season with a national title, the program’s third after championships in 2005 and 2012. Mulkey, the consensus national Coach of the Year, joins Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in the ultraexclusive club of women’s basketball coaches with at least three national championships.
Ogunbowale ended her spectacular collegiate career with a gamehigh 31 points to lead four Notre Dame players with double-figure scoring, but Baylor’s defense and survival skills prevailed.
Jackson led the Bears with 26 points, and center Kalani Brown had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Baylor (37-1), in a statistic fitting of its dominance this year, is 3-0 in national title games.
The Bears fell just once this season, in Stanford, California, in December. It was the type of indefatigable might that Mulkey had seen before — when her team tore through a perfect 40-0 season to win the title in 2012. Those who picked against Baylor this time around didn’t do so out of doubt of the Bears, but rather because of belief in the defending champion.
Notre Dame, after all, brought back four of its starters from last year’s team, had two of college basketball’s most creative offensive players in Jackie Young and Ogunbowale and possessed a dynamic duo of its own down low to challenge Brown and Lauren Cox.
But the Fighting Irish (35-4) got off to a poor start and trailed, looking frustrated, until late in the third quarter.
Still, the crowd of 20,127 at Amalie Arena knew better than to get comfortable with a team that won its national title last year on a buzzer-beater. The game’s tenor changed when Cox fell down under Notre Dame’s basket, clutching her left knee and rolling around on the court with 1:22 to play in the third quarter. The arena went quiet when she fell, and Mulkey walked over to hold her close and say a few words before Cox 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.”
Playing without Cox in the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame is often at its strongest, was no small feat for Baylor. Trailing by 10 at the start of the period, the Fighting Irish tied the score at 74 with 5:18 to play after Marina Mabrey hit three 3-pointers in 123 seconds, and they took the lead two minutes, their first since early in the first quarter. Baylor and Notre Dame jockeyed for position for the rest of the game until Jackson put the Bears ahead 82-80 with five seconds to go.
Ogunbowale, the hero of last year’s Final Four after her back-to-back buzzer-beaters lifted Notre Dame to its first national title since 2001, was fouled with one second left. She missed one free throw, flinging her head back in frustration, then hit the next after trying to miss, and there was almost no time left from there.
Even with Cox’s injury, that Notre Dame was able to stage a comeback was no surprise. coach Muffet McGraw has called her squad a fourthquarter team, knowing it shows up in crunchtime. Still, its start Sunday had to have her sweating.
The Fighting Irish couldn’t get anything to fall despite good looks against Baylor’s smothering defense and solid second chances at the rim thanks to Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner. They made 1 of 13 field goals in the first five minutes, and the Bears took advantage for a 15-5 lead.
The advantage reached 17 with 6:38 left in the half, with Notre Dame laboring through long possessions to come away with a midrange jumper or, more often, nothing. On the other end, Baylor made scoring look easy, especially when the buckets came from Jackson.
The Bears’ point guard, whose natural position is shooting guard, had 14 points on 7-for-10 shooting, three assists and a steal at halftime after not scoring at all in the first half against Oregon on Friday in the semifinals.
Baylor’s Chloe Jackson attempts a shot against Notre Dame’s Jackie Young, left, and Trinity Oliver Sunday.