Remember when Baylor lost to Texas A&M in the Elite Eight Dallas regional last March? Baylor never quite forgot. Head coach Kim Mulkey's Lady Bears have not lost since, and with last night's 80-61 win over Notre Dame, the NCAA women's basketball national championship trophy still resides in Texas.
The game was not nearly as entertaining as last year's Texas A&M-Notre Dame contest, but that's because it wasn't close.
"[T]he title game was just the way Baylor wanted it," wrote Mechelle Voepel of ESPN.com. "Anti-climactic."
Baylor is the first team in the sport (women's or men's) to go 40-0. Mulkey had already been named the Associated Press Coach of the Year and star center Brittney Griner had already won the Naismith Award as the country's most outstanding women's college basketball player (beating out her fellow Houston native Nneka Ogwumike of Stanford). America may love an underdog, but this was one of those moments where the best team lived up to everybody's expectations and definitively sealed its greatness.
Baylor is the seventh women's team to finish undefeated, a group that also includes the University of Connecticut (which accomplished that feat four different times) and Jody Conradt's 1986 University of Texas team. And Mulkey is just the fifth coach to win more than one NCAA women's title, having previously led the Lady Bears to a championship in 2005.
As Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle recapped, the game topped off one of the best sports years ever in the history of Baylor University. They helped keep the Big 12 together, had their first ten-win football season since 1980, and their first bowl win in twenty years behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III. And Scott Drew's men's team got to the Elite Eight before giving way to eventual national champion Kentucky last week.
Mulkey, who announced that she was suffering from Bell's Palsy last week, acknowledged that she could not stop crying tears of happiness after the game. But she also didn't turn down the intensity until the final minute. As Michelle Smith of ESPN wrote:
With a little more than three minutes left in the game and her team up by more than 20 points, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey watched Notre Dame reserve guard Kaila Turner go down to the other end of the floor and hit a 3-pointer.
Mulkey stood next to her bench and shook her head in disgust.
There's no sitting in Mulkey's world, only standing almost to the final seconds of her team's 80-61 victory over Notre Dame in Tuesday night's national championship game.
She shouted instructions, directed, gestured and clapped.
"I can't help it," Mulkey said. "I coach 'em to the bitter end. My players deserve that."
After the game, as Ann Killion of Sports Illustrated reported, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw got into a bit of hot water for making a comment about Griner that was just a little too similar to the kind of taunts Griner hears from opposing fans and ignoramuses on social media for being such an unusual athletic specimen (the subject of Solmon's pre-game column ).
"I think she's one of a kind," McGraw said. "I think she's like a guy playing with women."
McGraw didn't mean to be derogatory. But she should have known better; she's been around the game for 30 years and witnessed the mean-spirited debate and ugly backlash against every strong female player who breaks the mold -- and none has ever more vilified than Griner. Comparing Griner to "a guy" -- no matter how well intentioned -- only fuels the nastiness.
McGraw quickly released a statement saying ESPN took her comments out of context and that they were "meant to be complimentary, and in reference to her style of play and her dominance in our game, nothing more. "
At CultureMap Houston, sports columnist Chris Baldwin turned the table by focusing on the more conventionally lovely appearance of Notre Dame point guard Skyler Diggins, arguing that she was "the player you still get the idea many would prefer to be the face of women's basketball."
That's arguable if not ludicrous given Baylor and Griner's pedigree, but Baldwin's straw woman allowed him to sing the praises of Lady Bears sophomore point guard (and, as Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News noted, Irving McArthur graduate) Odyssey Sims.
Sims, wrote Baldwin, "completely outplays the ultra-hyped pretty player. Sims (19 points, seven rebounds, four assists) controls the game in every way a point guard must. Diggins never comes close to doing that."
Richard Deitsch at Sports Illustrated certainly had no doubt Griner is the face of women's basketball:
Griner's legacy as a transcendent player was assured before the title game, but she can now stake her claim as the game's greatest. She has led Baylor to a 101-13 record during her three seasons in Waco and is the first Division I player to record more than 2,000 points (she has 2,425) and 500 blocks (599). Griner has scored in double figures in 110 of 112 games and blocked at least one shot in 109 of them, including her last 50.
And she's still only a junior. And, said Mulkey, she'll be back next year:
She's not going anywhere. I don't know what part of that y'all don't understand. She wants to get her degree. She said it. I've said it. I don't know what else we can say. This kid is, she's a jewel. She enjoys Baylor. Come see her. Watch her longboard across campus, paint her body at a football game. Watch her do cartwheels and roll down the halls. She's a kid. She enjoys her college life. She knows she's going to make money someday. She's not in a hurry to go into that crude, rude, crazy real world. She likes her little comfort there in Waco, Texas.