By Jerry Hill, Baylor Bear Insider
When the final horn sounded and the snow-flake confetti fell from the rafters of the Pepsi Center, the Baylor Lady Bears could finally cut loose and celebrate the one thing that had motivated them all year long.
39-0 wasn't good enough. Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships only whetted the appetite for more. Not even getting to the Final Four or Tuesday's NCAA national championship game would do for a team that wanted to finish business and complete a mission that was planned in March 2011.
With 6-foot-8 All-American Brittney Griner living up to all of her Player of the Year hype with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, the Lady Bears took care of the "Unfinished Business" by handing Notre Dame its second straight loss in the national championship game, 80-61, before a sell-out crowd of 19,028 at the Pepsi Center.
"We finally did it. Unfinished business was over. And I was just ready to be with my team and hug them all," said Griner, who was named the Most Outstanding Player on a Final Four all-tournament team that included Baylor teammates Odyssey Sims and Destiny Williams, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike.
After mild celebrations following the Big 12 championships and even the win over Tennessee that clinched a berth in the Final Four, this one looked like a party that's been in the works for a long time. Highlighted by Brooklyn Pope's gyrations on a quickly placed stage at center court, the post-game celebration included players and coaches donning championship T-shirts and hats and then cutting down the nets at both ends of the court.
Repeating the scene from the 2005 national championship, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey climbed the ladder with her two children, Makenzie and Kramer, to finish off the nylon threads on one end of the court. The only difference was Makenzie was a 20-year-old sophomore guard instead of a wide-eyed 13-year-old teenager.
"I don't think I can put into words how awesome it has been, going 40-0 and having the chance to play for a national championship and then winning, and to play for my mom," said Robertson. "No one can understand how great it feels. And the fact that my whole family has been here makes it that much better."
Mulkey, who broke down in tears as Griner and three of the other starters left the floor with about a minute left, said the best part was seeing Griner, Sims and junior guard Jordan Madden - "who never even won a state championship" - walk off the floor as national champions.
"My joy now with coaching is I want my players to feel what I have been blessed to feel for years," said Mulkey, who's the only person on the men's or women's side to win a national championship as a player, assistant coach and head coach. "The joy for me is to watch all those Baylor people out there on the big stage and feel good and feel important. That makes me happy.
"It's not about me. I've been around some of the best in the business. But my joy in coaching is for the people who have never had the opportunity to experience what I have."
While Baylor was celebrating its second national championship and the first 40-win season by an NCAA men's or women's basketball team, Notre Dame was licking the wounds of losing in the championship game for the second straight year. The Fighting Irish had an 11-point second half lead before losing to Texas A&M, 76-70, in last year's title game.
"I feel a little numb right now," said senior guard Natalie Novosel, who was 0-for-11 from the field after lighting up Baylor for 28 points in a 94-81 loss back in November. "To get all the way back to this point hurts the most, because we came up short again. To come all this way, especially as a senior, and wanting and feeling a sense of urgency to come back this whole way and to not be able to come out on top again is what hurts the most."
Give the Fighting Irish (35-4) credit, though. When they had a chance to be knocked out early, falling behind by 14 with about seven minutes left in the first half, they refused to go silently in the night.
Closing the half on a 13-5 run, they pulled within six at the half, 34-28, and seemed to have momentum on their side. And when Novosel knocked down a pair of free throws at the 15:27 mark of the second half, this was a three-point game, 42-39, that seemed like it could have gone either way.
"We're fighters. We never quit. We've never been that type of team," said senior forward Devereaux Peters, who picked up three fouls in the first half and finished with just seven points and three rebounds in 15 minutes.
But it was Peters' fourth foul that proved to be the turning point.
After a missed layup by Nae-Nae Hayden, Notre Dame had the ball with a chance to tie it with a 3-pointer. But Peters was whistled for her fourth foul at the 15:10 mark, when she knocked down Sims with an illegal pick.
Undaunted by one of several knockdown blows, Sims picked herself up off the mat and drained a 3-pointer that pushed the Lady Bear lead back to six in the blink of an eye.
"I've been getting hit by screens all year," said the 5-8 sophomore point guard, who finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. "And when I get hit, I just pop back up. I didn't know I was going to hit a 3. But I tried to get back into the play as quick as possible and not give up on my team."
Still not willing to go down for the count, Notre Dame stayed within striking distance and pulled back within six, 54-48, on a three-point Natalie Achonwa.
But it was right about then that the Lady Bears decided enough was enough.
An alert Hayden snuck in for an offensive board on a miss by Sims and hit Destiny Williams for a driving layup to start a 21-2 run over the next six minutes that put the game away.
Griner, who was a near-perfect 8-for-9 from the floor in the second half, knocked down a baseline jumper over freshman Markisha Wright. And then did her best Quincy Acy impersonation with an and-one that pushed the lead back to double digits, 61-48, with 9:26 left.
"When I hit that little hook, it just got me energized," Griner said. "I was kind of shocked it went in, but it definitely got me going. Then I got that and-one, and I just kind of lost it for a minute, just celebrating."
Scoring the first eight points in a decisive 14-0 run, Sims buried a 3-pointer, hit a sweet layup off a back-to-you pass from Griner on an inbounds play and then sank all three free throws when she got fouled on a 3-point shot by Kayla McBride.
Brooklyn Pope, who chipped in with eight points, four rebounds and an assist off the bench, finished the run with a pair of free throws that put Baylor its largest lead, 75-50, with 4:56 left.
"I thought our kids were composed," Mulkey said. "When they cut into the lead, they never lost focus."
Even more than Griner, what won this one was a suffocating defense that held the nation's second-highest scoring offense to nearly 20 points below its scoring average and 35.5 percent shooting from the field (22-of-62).
"We're going to guard people," Mulkey said. "Everyone talked about it being Notre Dame's offense vs. our defense. We scored 94 on them last time, we scored 80 today. We can score with the best of them. But defense wins championships. Don't ever forget that."
Madden contributed little on the offensive end, held scoreless for the third time in the last four games, but she completely shut down Novosel and contributed with six rebounds, five assists and a block.
"I thought they did a really good job on me defensively, not helping off me at all so I could get a clean look at the basket," Novosel said. "They always had a hand in my face. Or as I was going off the dribble, trying to get to the rim, Griner's right there. So it was a tough night for me offensively."
Whether she needed it or not, Griner validated her place as one of the best players in the history of the game with a national championship ring.
"With Brittney's presence on the defensive end of the floor, you have to make adjustments," Mulkey said. "Shots that they were making, they were having to release it quicker before she could get over there. They got a lot of layups because they brought Brittney away from the basket. . . . It's sad in athletics when people feel you have to validate your talent by winning a championship. But that's society and that's the world we live in. Brittney Griner, whether she won today or not, will go down in the history of the women's game if not the greatest post player, one of the greatest. I'm so glad she has that ring now."
For Griner, Mulkey and the rest of the Lady Bears, it wasn't about validating or even the perfect 40-0 record. As Mulkey put it, "I think of two words: National Championship!"
"I wanted it, because this is what we promised coach when we got here," said Griner, who's expected to complete the sweep of National Player of the Year honors when the Wooden Award is announced on Friday in Los Angeles. "It had nothing to do with validating what type of player I am. That was the last thing in my mind. It's the team and just getting the national championship for coach and for Baylor."
Williams added 12 points, six rebounds and a pair of assists for Baylor, while Diggins led the Fighting Irish with 20 points, three assists, two steals and no turnovers in 27 minutes.
"Obviously, they're a great team," Diggins said. "They're a hard-working team. They've got players - multiple players - that can score 20. Every player knows their role, and they play it to a T. And they showed that they're the best team in the country."
The Lady Bears will return to Waco Wednesday afternoon for a welcome-home celebration at 3:30 p.m. at the Ferrell Center. Doors will open at 3 p.m., and admission is free and open to the public.