Playing without the heart and soul of the team for the last 11 ½ minutes, the Baylor Lady Bears saw their national championship hopes slipping away.
With Lauren Cox sidelined with an apparent knee injury and three other Baylor players strapped with four fouls, defending national champion Notre Dame rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit to take a late one-point lead in Sunday’s championship before a crowd of 20,127 at Amalie Arena.
Faced with all that adversity, and playing on the biggest stage against a Notre Dame team poised to repeat, it would have been understandable if this team had thrown in the towel.
Chloe Jackson nailed a pull-up jumper to give the Lady Bears the lead with 33.2 seconds left, then came off a screen by DiDi Richards and drove in for a scoop layup with 3.9 seconds for the game winner as Baylor held on for a courageous, emotional and hard-fought 82-81 victory for its third national championship in program history.
“For us to win probably was a miracle in itself when you lose a player of that caliber,” coach Kim Mulkey said of losing Cox, the two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, at the 1:22 mark in the third quarter. “Not only the talent she has, but she’s our leader.
“Guys, that wasn’t a fluke out there. The old school won a national championship, whatever that means. I don’t know what ‘old school’ means. I just know how to win.”
Yes, she does.
Baylor ended this magical season on a 29-game winning streak, a 37-1 record and a third national championship that separated Mulkey from a pack of two-title coaches that includes Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw. Only UConn’s Geno Auriemma (11) and former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt (eight) have won more.
In tears during the post-game celebration, Mulkey said she was “emotional from Cox’s injury,” which was painfully similar to the torn ACL that senior point guard Kristy Wallace suffered last year “that kept us from getting (to the Final Four).”
“Lauren Cox, she’s the heart and soul of our team,” Mulkey said, “and I know she’s hurt because that kid would have gotten up. But you know what, God is good. He blessed these kids, they fought through it. NaLyssa Smith, Kalani Brown, Chloe Jackson, I can name them all. I just know when you lose a big-time player in the middle of a national championship game, you’re not supposed to win.”
Cox was taken off the floor in a wheelchair after the injury and came back later on crutches, wearing a brace on her left leg.
“From the time I left on that floor to get to the huddle, I needed to regroup,” Mulkey said. “I needed to make them understand. We’re going to still win this basketball game. It will be a little bit tougher now, but we’ve got to battle, and we did.”
Things looked bleak when Notre Dame (35-4) reeled off seven unanswered points to start the fourth quarter after All-American guard Arike Ogunbowale buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter. All of a sudden, the Fighting Irish were back in a one-possession game,trailing 66-63.
“We knew they were holding something in their bag,” said sophomore guard DiDi Richards, who had six points and six assists. “We kind of knew they were going to come the way they came in the fourth.”
Coming all the way back, Notre Dame tied it at 74-74 on Marina Mabrey’s third 3-pointer of the quarter, then took its first lead since early in the first quarter when Ogunbowale made one of two free throws after a foul on Smith to put the Irish up 77-76.
Shepard tied it for the final time, at 80-80, when she canned a pair of free throws with 16.1 seconds left.
Calling time out, Mulkey decided to go with the same “5 game” play that beat Oregon in the final seconds of Friday’s 72-67 semifinal win. With about eight seconds left, Jackson started driving around a screen by Richards and blew by guard Jackie Young for a scoop layup that put the Lady Bears up by two with 3.9 ticks left.
“Duck your head, you get in there and score it,” Mulkey said. “She had to go in there with (Brianna) Turner getting ready to alter and potentially block her shot. I told her, ‘Don’t get rid of it unless the girl in the corner, who is our shooter, that defender comes over and tries to take a charge or something. Then, you kick it out. Chloe never gets rattled. She gave up a lot of threes to Mabrey, but she never got rattled.”
On the ensuing play, Ogunbowale took an inbounds pass, drove baseline and was fouled by Moon Ursin with 1.9 seconds left. Last year’s Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four with a pair of buzzer-beating winners, Ogunbowale had the first free throw rim out, then made the second one when she was supposed to miss it, closing the gap to 82-81.
“It’s tough. You can’t really do anything about that one,” said Ogunbowale, who scored a game-high 31 points.
Ursin, drawing the tough defensive assignment, said her main priority was not giving up a 3-pointer.
“First of all, to go out there on the wing and guard their best player, coach had confidence in me. That right there gave me motivation,” Ursin said. “Second, I was just worried about letting her get a 3 off. I just knew that if I fouled her, the worst that could happen was overtime.”
Instead, the Lady Bears were able to run off the final seconds, setting off a celebration that lasted well into the night and carried back to the team hotel for a pep rally to celebrate with a group of students that were busing 20 miles back to Waco.
Jackson, a grad transfer from LSU, scored a season-high 26 points on 13-of-25 shooting from the floor and earned MOP honors on an all-tournament team that included Cox, (eight points, eight rebounds, three blocks), 6-7 senior All-American Kalani Brown (20 points, 13 rebounds) and Notre Dame’s Ogunbowale and Mabrey.
“My teammates and my coaches, they believe in me,” Jackson said. “They believe in me so much. And for LC (Cox), she got us here, and we had to finish the job for her.”
Brown, who ran to the bench to give Cox a long embrace when the final horn sounded, said she told her teammate, “We did this for you.”
“When she went down, I can say we got a little ratted, but we had to pull it together, pull it out for her. The whole time, she was coaching on the sideline. She was still involved. That speaks volumes of her character. So, I was just like, ‘We did it for you, babe.”’
Smith scored eight of her 14 points in the last 11 minutes, following Cox’s injury, before fouling out with 47 seconds left.
“Actually, the thing going through my head all night was just I’ve got to play good,” said Smith, who was 7-of-9 from the floor, adding six rebounds and a big block. “When Coach called my name, I just knew it was my time to shine. I just went in there and let everything go.”
Landrum, a product of nearby La Vega High School, adds her name to the growing list of Baylor’s national championship players.
“It’s sweet,” said Landrum, who had eight points, six assists, three rebounds and two blocks. “I can come back to Baylor 10 years from now and say I won a national championship. And my picture’s going to be on that wall (at the Ferrell Center). That’s an amazing feeling.”