By Jerry Hill, Baylor Bear Insider
All year long, Baylor's players and coaches alike have worn wristbands that remind them of the "Unfinished Business" that was left undone last season.
The Lady Bears are now one game away from finishing business.
On a night when 6-foot-8 All-American Brittney Griner was harassed by a suffocating Stanford defense, Baylor's supporting cast stepped into starring roles as the top-ranked Lady Bears remained perfect and advanced to the national championship game with a hard-fought 59-47 win over the Cardinal Sunday night before a crowd of 19,028 at the Pepsi Center.
"Brittney Griner is the face of women's basketball right now. And we embrace that," said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, whose 39-0 team will face fourth-ranked Notre Dame (35-3) in Tuesday's 7:30 p.m. championship game. "She deserves that, and it's great recognition for Baylor. But our team is not just Brittney Griner."
If that was the case, the Lady Bears wouldn't have had a chance against a Stanford team (35-2) that wasn't about to let Griner beat them. They surrounded her with defenders all night, fronting her, playing behind her and making even the smallest moves seem almost impossible.
"They always had two people on me or a second defender that came in to try to double me," said Griner, who was just 3-of-9 from the field, finishing with 13 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. "They stuck with their plan the whole game. Frustrating? You get frustrated when your shot doesn't go in. but I had all the confidence in my team. Like coach said, it's not the Brittney Griner show at all. My team stepped up and knocked down shots."
That's where Stanford's defensive strategy backfired.
The Cardinal dared wings Jordan Madden and Terran Condrey to take open jumpers, offering up gold-embossed invitations. And while they struggled in the first half, hitting a combined 3-for-12, the two role-playing guards stepped up to hit six second-half field goals and contributed 22 points overall.
"She stepped up like a senior should and hit big shots for us," sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims said of Condrey, who finished one point shy of her season-high with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field.
"Most teams double-team Griner, so they'll leave people open," said Condrey, who had scored in double figures just twice this year and not since Jan. 26. "We had to be ready to knock down the shots in the game."
Although Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer denied it, Stanford seemed content to slow down the pace, use up the shot clock and shorten the game. And with the teams combining to miss 40 shots, it made for an ugly first half when neither team led by more than four points.
"We wanted to run on them, but we really didn't get out and go as well as we wanted to," said VanDerveer, who was trying to win her third national championship. "They make things hard in terms of running your offense, so they take you out of doing your normal things. It took us that long just to get the floor organized and to be able to run our offense."
And especially in the first half, the Cardinal wanted no part of taking it inside on Griner. Other than some back-door layups off of a spread set, they steered clear of the paint area, taking 12 3-pointers in the first half alone.
"I was definitely psyching myself out," said Stanford senior Nneka Ogwumike, who finished with 22 points and nine rebounds. "I was kind of too into myself in the first half, feeling I needed to fire, fire, fire. But Tara's always told me that if I'm shooting, who is rebounding?"
Bonnie Samuelson hit a 3-pointer to give Stanford a 23-21 lead with 4:17 left in the half, but the Cardinal went scoreless the rest of the way and trailed, 25-23, going into the locker room.
"I felt like some of us were a little nervous trying to get all the jitters out," said Sims, who finished with 11 points, four rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals with no turnovers in 40 minutes. "But we didn't come out strong. Going into halftime we knew we had to pick it up."
When the Lady Bears finally went on a run early in the second half, it was Madden and Condrey that led the charge in a 13-1 spurt that got the lead to double digits.
After Sims hit a floater in the lane over Nneka, Destiny Williams made one of two free throws to give Baylor the lead for good, 32-31, with 15:49 left. That's when the supporting cast became the leads.
Condrey nailed an open jumper from the wing, followed by a three-point play by Madden off an assist from Sims. Then Madden hit a driving layup off the glass that stretched the lead to 40-32 and forced VanDerveer to burn one of her timeouts.
"They do it every game, so I'm used to it," Madden said of Stanford's defensive strategy to leave her alone and double down on Griner. "I guess they see my stat sheet and see that I don't shoot a lot or maybe I miss a lot. But it's what they do every game. . . . Sometimes when you miss, you can drive it in some and then make the easy baskets and work your way out."
Griner hit her only second-half field goal to finish the run, nailing a short baseline jumper over Chiney Ogwumike to push the lead up to 42-32 at the 12:05 mark.
The biggest blow for Stanford came with 7:58 left, when Chiney was called for her fifth foul on a drive to the basket by Williams. Named an All-American the day before, the younger sister of Nneka finished with just four points and four boards in 27 minutes.
"Honestly, you never know what's going to happen in games, but the game before ours seemed to be extremely physical. And this game was just the opposite to me," VanDerveer said of her team's 17 fouls. "I just didn't see it. We're not that physical of a team. We've never had anyone foul out all year. It was just . . . different."
Baylor kept the door open by missing four of eight free throws during one stretch. Williams, in particular, struggled from the line, hitting just 5-of-10.
"I don't know what it was," said Williams, who missed the first one on all five trips to the line. "I think I had bad luck or something. Somebody was doing voo-doo. But I just had to step up and knock the second one down. I couldn't afford to miss them both. I know for me personally, that's one thing I'm doing before and after practice is getting some free throws in."
Mulkey said the key was that Williams' poor free throw shooting didn't affect her on the other end.
"I thought Destiny had one of her better defensive games," Mulkey said. "Whether it was Nneka or Chiney, Destiny was active on who she was guarding. I thought she didn't let her offense or her inability to get many shots affect what she was trying to do to help her team win, if that was blocking out and getting the defensive rebound. If she makes her free throws, Destiny does what she's been doing, and that's a double-double."
The Cardinal pulled to within 49-43 on an offensive put-back by Nneka with 4 ∏ minutes to go, but Baylor closed on a 10-4 run that included a 3-point bomb, a layup and two free throws by Sims.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Sims launched the ball into the rafters at the Pepsi Center. But that was about as close as the Lady Bears came to celebrating their 39th consecutive victory and the program's second trip to the championship game.
"It feels great that we're going to play on Tuesday," Sims said, "but then again, we haven't done anything yet."
In other words, the business isn't finished. That comes Tuesday night, when Baylor faces a Notre Dame team that went overtime to knock off third-ranked Connecticut, 83-75.
"They deserve to play for the national championship," said Mulkey, who's visibly struggling with the Bell's palsy that she was diagnosed with last week. "They've taken everybody's best shot. They've got a gimpy coach up here that can hardly hear, see or talk, yet they pull me through and pull me along. And we'll be out there come Tuesday, and we'll give it our best shot again."
And maybe then they can finally celebrate.
"Our composure is just weird. I don't know what it is," Williams said. "But we're calm about it. People expect us to win."