Tampa, Florida: Behind a typically strong performance from its frontcourt and feisty defense from its perimeter players, Baylor fended off Notre Dame 82-81 Sunday night to claim the national championship and a place in women’s college basketball history.
The win against the defending national champ Fighting Irish makes Baylor just the third program in Division I with three or more championships, joining Connecticut and Tennessee. The Bears’ previous championships came in 2005 and 2012, both under longtime head coach Kim Mulkey.
This year saw the Bears assume the top spot in the polls in January and never look back, ripping off a 29-game winning streak to end the season that featured just four games decided by single digits.
Baylor (37-1) controlled the game’s first three quarters and then fended off the inevitable charge from Notre Dame, which had built a reputation for Final Four heroics. The Bears led 25-14 at the end of the first quarter and again at halftime, 43-31.
But Notre Dame would close to within 11 points to end the third quarter and open the fourth on a 19-8 run to tie the score at 74. The game was again tied at 80 on the Bears’ final possession, when guard Chloe Jackson drove to her right off another screen and past two Notre Dame defenders to put in a layup that bounced twice on the rim before falling in, giving Baylor an 82-80 lead with 3.9 seconds left.
Notre Dame would get what it needed on the final possession: Arike Ogunbowale would go to the line for two free throws but miss the first before making the second. Just a year ago, she was named most outstanding player in the Final Four when she hit late game-winning baskets in the semifinal and final.
Lady Bears lead by ✌️
— NCAA WBB (@ncaawbb) April 8, 2019
As predicted, Baylor held a significant edge in the post despite losing junior forward Lauren Cox to a knee injury with over a minute left in the third quarter. The Bears were paced by Brown, a senior center, who scored 20 and added 13 rebounds. But Jackson was the game’s star, scoring a team-high 26 points to go with 5 assists.
The loss of Cox changed the game. “It was really hard because she’s our leader, and she’s the reason why we are here,” said Jackson, named Final Four most outstanding player. “But we had to come together, we had to finish it.”
When Cox went down under the basket, the crowd fell silent as trainers attended to her left knee. She was taken off the court in a wheel chair but a few minutes later returned on crutches and joined in the team huddle.
“I’m one of the leaders on this team and (I wanted) to have my voice in the huddle to tell them it was okay,” she said. “And they told me they were going to do it for me. It was exciting. I knew we were going to win it.”