Baylor Lady Bears
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey and the Lady Bears have had one goal this season – winning an NCAA championship. There is no way they have come this far to walk out of the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night without taking a national championship trophy back to Waco.
And they have every reason to believe they will take home the hardware. The Lady Bears do it all.
Baylor is a multi-dimensional team with too many weapons to defend. Brittney Griner provides a presence in the paint like none other in the women’s game, Odyssey Sims creates turnovers with her constant on-ball pressure, Destiny Williams is a rebounding machine — and the rest of the Lady Bears seem to step up whenever necessary.
“We’re 39-0 and going to play for the national championship,” Mulkey said. “And they deserve to play for the national championship. They’ve taken everybody’s best shot.”
Everyone has given Baylor their best shot, and no one has come close to knocking off the Lady Bears.
The have won all but five of their 39 games by a double-digit margin. The closest an opponent has come to beating Baylor this season were a pair of five-point games against Connecticut (66-61) and Texas Tech (56-51). Baylor has won each of its last nine games by double-digits, and boasts a 21.2 scoring margin in five NCAA Tournament games.
In November, Baylor downed Notre Dame, 94-81. While it was a 13-point victory, it was the most points the Lady Bears have given up all season. They tightened up the defense and have not allowed more than 68 points since the game against the Irish.
Now, none of that matters.
“This is the game we’ve been waiting for all year,” said Griner. “And we’re finally here and just got one more game. We gotta lay it all on the line. So afterwards we can celebrate.”
“Everything that we’ve done all year still doesn’t mean anything because if we don’t leave here with a ring, we go home with a loss,” said Sims. “We have the chance to make history, but we know that we still have to play hard. Like Coach has been telling us all year, it doesn’t matter what kind of record you have, we could lose 15 to 20 games but if we come here and win a national championship the record doesn’t matter.”
Baylor has one reason to be in Denver. Baylor is here to win.
–Amy Farnum, NCAA.com
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Senior guard Natalie Novosel started the game strong on Sunday and ended it strong. She kept the Fighting Irish alive in the first half of its national semifinal versus Connecticut on Sunday while the Huskies hunkered down on the typical standout in Skylar Diggins. Then Novosel hit the game-tying put-back to keep Notre Dame in the game and send it into OT.
“Me and Sky were joking about it last night, how easy it looked for her,” said fifth-year senior forward Devereaux Peters. “She was just so calm and collected shooting that shot like it was the first play of the game or something like that.”
Novosel led the team with 20 points on Sunday, eight of which were from the charity stripe. The Fighting Irish will definitely need for her to continue to penetrate and draw the foul, preferably against Baylor’s paint guardian Brittney Griner.
Her unpredictability and ability to take on multiple roles for Notre Dame should also keep the Lady Bears on their toes.
“Nat’s a chameleon,” sophomore forward Natalie Achonwa said of Novosel. “I think she can do so many things that other teams don’t know what to do with her. I know when we’re in practice, there are times we don’t even know what to do with her.”
Speaking of Achonwa, when the team faced Baylor early on in the season, it was her first game back from a minor knee surgery. A healthy Achonwa will be a difference-maker for the Fighting Irish coming off the bench.
“We weren’t matured yet,” fifth-year senior Brittany Mallory said. “Our defense wasn’t the best. Natalie Achonwa wasn’t playing. …Having her back is going to be huge for us. It’s just a completely different team. We are so different than we were those first few games. We’ve grown a lot. We just have to be ready to play.”
Yes, both teams have unfinished business from last season, coming up short of a national title. But there’s something to be said about the determination of a group of seniors who know that this is their last game.
“When I was injured I really tried to think about how this was happening for a reason and now this is what happened,” Peters said. “I’m really excited. We’re trying to make the most of it. I want to win my last game, so I’m trying to make the most of this year I got back.”
Mallory added, “[The championship] would mean everything. It would make this whole fifth year worth it.”
Now, it’s time for the Fighting Irish to finish business.
–Summer McKesson, NCAA.com