By John Altavilla, The Hartford Courant –
DENVER — Notre Dame and Baylor used the same prod to propel themselves through the season.
Their meeting Tuesday night for the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship at the Pepsi Center was a crusade, each intent on righting past wrongs; Notre Dame’s loss in last year’s title game, Baylor’s elimination in last season’s Elite Eight.
Texas A&M, the defending national champion, left them both in a bad mood last season. So each program embraced slogans dealing with their unfinished business.
But there would be just one campaign celebrated in a mile-high shower of confetti. And the first piece should have dropped on the head of the game’s tallest figure, Baylor’s 6-8 center Brittney Griner.
She was the one, a presence as well as the punctuation mark, who blocked the light at the end of Notre Dame’s tunnel.
Led by Griner, who scored 26 points, with 13 rebounds and five blocks, and coaxed on by an energized coach, Kim Mulkey, who is now fighting Bell’s Palsy, Baylor defeated Notre Dame, 80-61, to win their second national championship. Griner was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
In the process, Baylor completes the first 40-0 season in the history of the sport, men or women. That’s finished business, a good year’s work.
The Irish (35-4), the Big East’s regular-season champion, were led by junior guard Skylar Diggins, who had 20 points. But no one in green could rebound with the Lady Bears. And that was crushing to the Irish, who are 0-3 in national championship games since 2001.
The Irish lost to Baylor by 13 points in Waco, Texas on Nov. 20, perhaps the worst game they played this season. It was performance fraught by bad shooting and a critical rebounding deficit fueled by the Baylor posts, Griner and Destiny Williams, who combined for 47 points (32 from Griner), 27 rebounds and five of Griner’s 201 regular-season blocks.
The Irish hoped their experience, accentuated by the grit of fifth-year players Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory, plus the magic of Diggins and Natalie Novosel, would be able to make up the difference.
It wasn’t enough. Notre Dame, which led 9-8 in the opening minutes, fought back from a 14-point, first-half deficit with 6:53 to play. They were within three, 42-39, with 15:27 to play, relying primarily on guile.
But there simply wasn’t anything they could do to compensate for what nature gave Griner — and Griner gave Baylor.
Things began to go bad early for the Irish. Peters picked up her second foul just 2:38 into the game. In came sophomore Natalie Achonwa and freshman Markisha Wright, who did not even play in Sunday’s semifinal against UConn.
Notre Dame’s zone forced Baylor to work hard for its shots. Novosel did her best to front Griner in the low post. But it was all too much, especially when the Irish made only 4-of-15 in the first 9:44 as the Lady Bears opened their first 10-point lead, 20-10.
Baylor was getting its points from everywhere. Griner, Sims and Williams each scored six of the first 20.
Diggins picked up her second foul with 8:18 to play in the half, but by then the Lady Bears were already in control. Their relentless rebounding compensated for their lack of outside shooting (they made 1-of-8 three in the first half) and the lead began to expand.
After falling behind 29-15 with 6:53 to play, the Irish cut it eight with deft passing, but then Peters picked up her third with 4:39 remaining and it’s the momentum would follow her to the bench. But Notre Dame pressed forward and cut the lead to 34-28 at the half despite shooting 11-of-32 from the floor.