Before the national championship game began on Sunday, things seemed to go according to plan for Baylor and Notre Dame. Two seeds No. 1, and two of the three teams that will occupy the No. 1 spot during the regular season, will face each other, one of which will seek the top of a dominant season, one defeat, and the other with the goal of get your second title. many years.
However, once the game started, virtually nothing went as planned for either team.
Baylor raced to a 15-5 lead and led to 17 in the first half and 12 at halftime. The Bears dominated, earning contributions from inside (12 points in the first half from the center of Kalani Brown) and outside (5-5 shots in the first quarter of the Chloe Jackson base). It was the bad kind of déjà vu for Notre Dame's head coach, Muffet McGraw, whose Fighting Irish needed a 15-point comeback, the biggest in an NCAA championship game, to take home the trophy last season. .
But in the second half, it was Mulkey's team that had the déjà vu type. A year after then-senior Kristy Wallace broke her ACL at the end of Baylor's regular season, the Bears lost the Big 12 defensive player of the year, Lauren Cox, to a knee injury in the third quarter. Notre Dame returned quickly to tie the game at 74 with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter and even took a 77-76 lead with just over three minutes left.
Baylor finally pulled an 82-81 victory behind the big contributions of the game's most prominent player in Jackson (26 points, five badists), Brown (20 points, 13 rebounds) and first-year reserve NaLyssa Smith (14 points, six bounces). Notre Dame seemed unstoppable at one point in the fourth quarter, with Marina Mabrey trading three triples in just over two minutes, but she broke up late in the free throw line, with two crucial errors at the last minute.
In the end, when the confetti fell from the rafters to signal the end of the women's college basketball season of 2018-19, everything went more or less as expected. The first seed number 1 lifted the trophy, emerging from a field that saw all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds advance towards the Elite Eight and the two teams that had the best chance of winning a title from the start. For the championship game. However, parity was just the buzzword of this season: teams like Oregon and NC State had historic years; Rice, of average level, obtained the top 25 of the rankings for the first time, and Gonzaga reached the highest position in the history of the program in the No. 12; and the mighty UConn was not the No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006. In the Final Four, the combined margin of victory (including the championship) was 11 points, the smallest margin in the history of the NCAA Women's Tournament, according to the statistics of ESPN. And Information Group.
Paradoxically, the national champions of 2019 rejected that parity and exemplified it.
Baylor dominated his schedule from start to finish, with a record of 37-1 and ending the season with a run of 29 consecutive wins. The Bears won their ninth consecutive title in the regular season conference and won the Big 12 tournament for the ninth time. In 11 years. Brown of 6 feet 7 and Cox of 6 feet 4 had seasons of caliber of all the country, being combined to average almost 29 points and 17 bounces by game. Behind his two inside leaders, Baylor led the country in blocks per game, badists per game, rebound percentage and field goal percentage from opponents.
But as much as they dominated, Baylor also embodied the growth of the game, defeating UConn in the regular season and Notre Dame in the championship game. This is the first time that a team has beaten both the Huskies and the Fighting Irish, two of the main programs of this sport in the last decade, in the same season since Baylor did it in 2012-13. The program has now won three national championships and has won four Final Fours since 2005 until reaching the Elite Eight in eight of the last 10 seasons. According to anyone's definition, Baylor should be considered at the highest level of the programs, on a par with UConn and Notre Dame.
Mulkey has turned his program into a source of power partly by recruiting well, but also by developing players and putting them in position to succeed. According to ESPN, he signed three of the five best recruiting clbades in the last four years, including the nation's No. 1 clbad in 2018. However, he still found himself without an experienced option as a point guard when entering this season. . He decided on an unorthodox solution, moved Jackson to the guard on duty and showed him the nuances of the position throughout the year. On Sunday night, Jackson showed that his coach made the right decision, committing just one rotation throughout the game and scoring Baylor's last 4 points.
In the end, Baylor claimed the 2019 national title by the thinnest of the margins, while demonstrating that parity is real in the women's game and guarantees that the Bears will be considered as one of the elite programs of this decade. They will be rebuilt again in the offseason, as they lose Brown and Jackson from this year's team. But do not be surprised if Baylor produces the good kind of déjà vu in the coming seasons, since Mulkey has made the Bears a perennial contender and a team that can compete with anyone, including UConn and Notre Dame.
Check out our latest March madness predictions.