Before the national championship game tipped off on Sunday, things seemed to be going according to plan for Baylor and Notre Dame. Two No. 1 seeds — and two of the three teams to be ranked No. 1 during the regular season — would face off, with one seeking to cap a dominant, one-loss season, and the other aiming for its second title in as many years.
Once the game began, though, practically nothing went according to plan for either team.
Baylor raced out to a 15-5 lead and led by as many as 17 in the first half and 12 at halftime. The Bears dominated, getting contributions from inside (12 first-half points from center Kalani Brown) and out (5-5 shooting in the first quarter from point guard Chloe Jackson). It was the bad kind of déjà vu for Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, whose Fighting Irish needed a 15-point comeback — the largest ever 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 bad kind of déjà vu. A year after then-senior Kristy Wallace tore her ACL in Baylor’s regular-season finale, the Bears lost Big 12 defensive player of the year Lauren Cox to a knee injury in the third quarter. Notre Dame promptly came all the way back to tie the game at 74 with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter and even briefly took a 77-76 lead with a little more than three minutes left.
Baylor ultimately pulled out an 82-81 victory behind big contributions from the game’s most outstanding player in Jackson (26 points, five assists), Brown (20 points, 13 rebounds) and freshman reserve NaLyssa Smith (14 points, six rebounds). Notre Dame looked unstoppable at one point in the fourth quarter, with Marina Mabrey canning three 3-pointers in just over two minutes, but came undone at the free-throw line late, with two crucial misses in the final minute.
In the end, when the confetti fell from the rafters to signal the end of the 2018-19 women’s college basketball season, everything was more or less as expected. The No. 1 overall seed hoisted the trophy, emerging out of a field that saw all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds advance to the Elite Eight and the two teams that had the best odds of winning a title at the outset make it to the championship game. Yet parity was rightfully the buzzword of this season: Teams like Oregon and NC State had historic years; mid-major Rice cracked the top-25 rankings for the first time, and Gonzaga hit its highest ranking in program history at No. 12; and mighty UConn was not a 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 such margin in women’s NCAA Tournament history, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.
Paradoxically, the 2019 national champions both rejected that parity and exemplified it.
Baylor dominated its schedule from start to finish, posting a 37-1 record and finishing the season on a 29-game win streak. The Bears claimed their ninth-straight regular-season conference title and won the Big 12 tournament for the ninth time in 11 years. The 6-foot-7 Brown and the 6-foot-4 Cox had All-America-caliber seasons, combining to average nearly 29 points and 17 rebounds per game. Behind their two interior leaders, Baylor led the country in blocks per game, assists per game, rebounding rate and opponent field-goal percentage.
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 sport’s premier programs over the past decade-plus, in the same season since Baylor did it in 2012-13. The program has now won three national championships and made four Final Fours since 2005 while reaching the Elite Eight in eight of the past 10 seasons. By anyone’s definition, Baylor should be considered in the upper echelon of programs, on par with UConn and Notre Dame.
Mulkey has built her program into a powerhouse in part by recruiting well, but also by developing players and putting them in position to succeed. She signed three top-5 recruiting classes in the past four years, according to ESPN, including the nation’s No. 1 class in 2018. Yet she still found herself without an experienced option at point guard entering this season. She settled on an unorthodox solution, moving graduate transfer Jackson to point guard and teaching her the nuances of the position throughout the year. On Sunday night, Jackson proved that her coach made the right decision, committing just one turnover all game and scoring Baylor’s final 4 points.
In the end, Baylor claimed the 2019 national title by the slimmest of margins,1 simultaneously proving that parity is real in the women’s game and ensuring that the Bears will be regarded as one of this decade’s elite programs. They will rebuild again in the offseason, as they lose Brown and Jackson off of this year’s team. But don’t be surprised if Baylor produces the good kind of déjà vu in seasons to come, as Mulkey has built the Bears into a perennial contender and a team that can compete with anyone — UConn and Notre Dame included.
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