Only two hours after the final game of the women's college basketball season, Kim Mulkey-Robertson and her Baylor Lady Bears used a back door to enter the ballroom at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Indianapolis.
Head coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson hunkers down with coaches Jennifer Roberts, from left, and Bill Brock, and the Lady Bears bench during some tense moments in the national championship game in Indianapolis against Michigan State.
Poised on the stage, the team surveyed the rollicking sea of fans in front of them, frenzied in their March Madness. All those faces turned toward Mulkey-Robertston, each waiting for the coach to confirm what seemed too good to be true.
Did Baylor really blast the Michigan State Spartans, 84-62, to win the women's basketball national championship?
Had they really left in their wake Illinois State, Oregon, Minnesota, North Carolina and LSU to get to the title game?
Did the Lady Bears really take care of "Unfinished Business" and, once and for all, exorcise the Tennessee demon?
With a perceptible look of utter amazement (and maybe relief), Mulkey-Robertson answered those questions with five words: "We are the national champions."
The Lady Bears did indeed claim the NCAA's top prize, joining the 2004 Baylor men's tennis team as the University's national team championship titleholders. The Lady Bears also won both the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles and earned the Big 12 Conference its first title in that sport, women or men.
Also by winning, Mulkey-Robertson pulled off a one-of-a-kind triple play, becoming the first person to win a national championship as a player (Louisiana Tech, 1982), an assistant coach (Louisiana Tech, 1988) and a head coach (Baylor, 2005).
But to truly understand what motivated the Lady Bears this year, you have to remember how the 2003-04 season ended. Baylor, in its first appearance in the Sweet 16, and Tennessee, a six-time national champion, were tied at 69. With the clock winding down, there was a scramble for a loose ball. A whistle blew. The horn sounded. A questionable foul was called against Baylor. Officials put two-tenths of a second on the clock. The Lady Vols shot two free throws. A jubilant Tennessee advanced. Heartbroken Baylor was sent home.
Though undoubtedly on the minds of the players and coaches throughout the summer, the Baylor-Tennessee game was mentioned once during the team's first fall meeting -- and then never again.
"Everybody that was involved in that game will never forget it," Mulkey-Robertson said before the NCAA championship game. "And that in itself should motivate you."
With four starters returning, including the All-Big 12 post tandem of senior Steffanie Blackmon and junior Sophia Young, the eighth-ranked Lady Bears began the year on national television at the State Farm Women's Tip Off Classic in Austin. Instead of dwelling on the past, Baylor set its sights forward on the No. 3 LSU Lady Tigers, one of last season's Final Four participants. That game -- played Nov. 14 -- would presage to the nation that, come March, the Lady Bears would be a contender.
Down by 19 at the half, Baylor mounted a furious second-half rally to tie LSU at 69 with 1:40 left. Then, down by one, the Lady Bears forced LSU into a turnover with :25 on the clock. But Baylor could only manage a desperation shot at the buzzer, and the Lady Tigers escaped the Erwin Center with a 71-70 win.
Despite the loss, the comeback set the tone for the rest of the Lady Bears' season. "The second half of that game, I think, taught us more than last season alone did," said junior guard Chameka Scott. "We had to find ourselves and understand individual roles on the team and who to get the ball to in clutch situations. We took so much from that game."
Mulkey-Robertson thought it was a pivotal game as well. "When you can be down 20 to LSU in your opening game and come back and have the ball in your hands to win it and you just didn't execute, we're going to be OK," she said after the game.
After LSU, the Lady Bears attacked their beefed-up nonconference schedule like grizzlies in a salmon-filled stream, knocking out the Big Ten's Indiana and Penn State, the SEC's Mississippi State and Florida, the Pac-10's Washington and the WAC's Rice, all teams with a history of postseason experience.
At 10-1 and No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, the Lady Bears began their historic march to the Big 12 title in rather modest fashion by going 3-2 through mid-January. A Jan. 22 loss at Texas, however, would be the last for the Lady Bears, as they reeled off 11 straight victories to claim sole possession of the Big 12 regular-season championship with a school-best 14-2 record.
The final horn of the Big 12 championship game -- a 79-69 win over Texas Tech -- set off a raucous celebration at midcourt, with players and fans jumping for joy amid confetti, balloons and the blaring strains of "We Are the Champions."
"We wanted to finish the job and we did," Mulkey-Robertson said after the game. "The fans deserve the celebration, the school deserves the celebration and the players deserve it. We didn't win a national championship; we know that, but we did something for the first time. Why not celebrate?"
For an encore, the Lady Bears put together a 3-0 run through the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, becoming the sixth Big 12 team to win both the regular-season and tournament titles.
Seeded No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Bears took their 14-game winning streak first to Seattle, where they blew out Illinois State and Oregon to advance to the Sweet 16.
For all the drama associated with Baylor's reappearance in the tournament's third round, the focus of the Tempe Regional turned instead to a more personal story line. At age 15, junior forward Sophia Young left her mother, siblings and home country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island in the British West Indies, to attend high school in Louisiana. Despite her ready smile, the Lady Bears' success and her rising fame as one of the nation's premier players, Young's desire during the season to see her mother, Annie Christopher, was almost unbearable. Christopher had difficulty obtaining the visa that would allow her to come to the States.
But all that changed in Tempe. On March 26, Young's mother watched from the stands as her All-American daughter scored 26 points in a 64-57 win over Minnesota. Jubilant and proud, she would be in the bleachers for Sophia throughout the rest of the tournament.
"Well, it was very special because she has never seen me play before," Young said. "I don't think she really understands how big basketball is out here (at Baylor). It's very special that she came out; it was good motivation for me. I think I really played my very best."
Two nights later, Young and the Lady Bears ran away with the victory over No. 1-seed North Carolina to reach the Final Four, one of the grandest stages in women's sports. "The only thing better would be to win a national championship," Mulkey-Robertson said after the game. If she only knew. Or, maybe even then, she did.
Call it destiny or just dumb luck, but the Lady Bears were set for a rematch with the LSU Lady Tigers in the national semifinals. Playing before 29,000 fans in the cavernous RCA Dome, the first half was almost déjà vu as LSU jumped to a 24-9 first-half lead. "You get down 15, and I'm looking at my coaches, going 'We're getting embarrassed on national television,'" Mulkey-Robertson said. "And I challenged my players and, once again, what warriors they are."
Baylor stormed back to tie the game at the half on another buzzer-beating Chelsea Whitaker layup. They pulled away from the SEC champion in the second frame for the 68-57 victory. "For people to turn the TV on tomorrow and watch Baylor University play for a national championship is pretty awesome," Mulkey-Robertson said.
Although some -- OK, a lot of -- Baylor fans secretly wished for another chance at Tennessee, Michigan State would have none of it. Like the Lady Bears, the Spartans rallied from a 16-point deficit to stun the Lady Vols and earn the right to play Baylor for the NCAA Championship.
On April 5, with thousands of Baylor faithful in the stands and millions more watching on ESPN, Baylor's first basket of the game -- a three-pointer from the left wing by sophomore forward Emily Niemann -- gave the Lady Bears a lead they would never relinquish in a runaway 84-62 victory.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, a rainbow of streamers cascaded from the ceiling and the Lady Bears collapsed in a giggling, celebratory heap at midcourt. Moments later, Mulkey-Robertson raised the National Championship trophy high for all the world to see.
They were welcomed home the following day by the deafening cheers of more than 7,000 fans in the Ferrell Center (see "Amen, Sisters!," page 22). And the plaudits just kept coming: a parade in downtown Waco; a resolution by the Texas Legislature; special recognition from the Houston Astros, Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers; and the presentation of the New York Athletic Club's Winged Foot Award to Mulkey-Robertson as the winning coach of the women's NCAA championship.
Even Baylor University's neighbor, President George W. Bush, whose ranch is nearby in Crawford, praised the Lady Bears. En route to Rome on Air Force One when asked about the team's win, he said, "They've got a great team. I'm looking forward to welcoming them to the White House."
At the sold-out Lady Bears appreciation banquet on April 21, there was still much to celebrate:
- A 33-3 record and the best winning percentage in school history;
- An all-time attendance record of 95,688 fans;
- First No. 1 team ranking, April 6 ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll;
- The nation's longest active winning streak at 20 games;
- AP All-America honors for Blackmon and Young;
- Academic All-America honors for Blackmon, the program's first;
- Kodak All-America honors for Young, the third Lady Bear to receive the award;
- Most Outstanding Player recognition for Young in the Big 12 Tournament, the NCAA's Tempe Regional and the Final Four;
- And Big 12 Coach of the Year honors for Mulkey-Robertson.
Center stage at the banquet, Mulkey-Robertson said this national title was "for all the great fans in Waco who have waited a lifetime for a national championship. This one was for all the little girls who now dream of being a Lady Bear. This one was for Baylor University, who needed a shining light and then it beamed across an entire nation."
But the night belonged to Mulkey-Robertson's first recruiting class of seniors Steffanie and Tiffanie Blackmon, Melanie Hamerly and Chelsea Whitaker. "They have left their mark on this program, this University ... and this entire Waco community," Mulkey-Robertson said.
"I told Chelsea several times that this basketball team will go as far as you take us. That's a pretty tough burden to put on a point guard's shoulders, and boy, did she ever take us for a ride," the coach said. "There's only one point guard leaving with a ring on her finger and she's mine."
Mulkey-Robertson admits to creating a "monster" when her first team made the NCAA Tournament five years ago. With a national championship, the anticipation and expectations for next season will grow dramatically. But before Baylor fans start looking to next year, Mulkey-Robertson is inclined to bask in the glory of the national championship ... at least until November, when the drive to be the "shining light" flickers yet again.
The record-setting wins included:
- a 67-65 squeaker at Oklahoma State, in which Steffanie Blackmon hit the game-winning free throws with only 0.9 left in regulation;
- a 52-49 triumph at No. 12 Texas Tech, Baylor's first win in Lubbock since 1982;
- a 73-72 buzzer-beater at Oklahoma, thanks to a Sophia Young jumper with 0.4 seconds left; and
- a dramatic season finale, in which a record crowd of 10,550 fans witnessed the Lady Bears "Finish the Job" with a dominant 79-69 win over Texas Tech.