TAMPA — When you are winning NCAA tournament games by an average margin of more than 38 points, you might wonder, just a little, what will happen when things get tight?
Unless you are Baylor coach Kim Mulkey.
"I think y’all wondered," Mulkey said. "I didn’t."
Baylor has been regarded by many as the best team in the country most of the season. The No. 1 ranking, the easy victories, the post tandem that virtually no team has seemed to be able to contain.
Now the Bears will have the opportunity to prove if they are indeed the best team in the country. And they will get their chance Sunday night in the NCAA Championship game at Amalie Arena against an experienced, battle-tested opponent.
BRACKET: Re-live this wild tournament
The Bears reached their first title game since they last won a championship back in 2012 by dispatching of a talented Oregon team, 72-67, in the first national semifinal Friday night in a game that featured 12 lead changes, 12 ties and was knotted, 67-67, with 1:40 to go.
Chloe Jackson and Lauren Cox hit key jumpers in the final minute and the Ducks missed 12 of their last 13 shots to close out what had been a thrilling, back-and-forth affair.
For their efforts, the Bears have earned the right to play Notre Dame with a NCAA title on the line.
“The feeling is unreal. I'm still in shock. I'm overwhelmed,” Baylor All-American center Kalani Brown said. “I'm just happy to be a part of this team right now.”
It is not shocking in any way Baylor’s interior duo of Brown and Cox were the dominant presences in this game. The pair combined for 43 points and 18 rebounds. Cox added 11 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks in 40 heart-stopping minutes on the floor.
Baylor needed every ounce of what Brown and Cox provided, as Oregon tied the NCAA record for 3s in a national semifinal game with 12 and pushed the Bears to the final minute of the game.
SCORES: Don't miss any of the action
Brown admitted at halftime, in a one-point game, Cox acknowledged in the locker room this was something new for the Bears.
“We just stuck to it. We've been in situations, so we just kind of, I don't know, looked back on those other games,” Brown said. “We've been challenged before.”
The Ducks have been challenged with tight games throughout the season, but no one posed the size, length and power of Baylor. For months, Oregon had been riding its dynamic offense. But when the Ducks had a big shot late, they couldn’t knock it down.
Oregon star guard Sabrina Ionescu, in what may be her final collegiate game (she will need to decide by Tuesday whether she will forgo her final season of eligibility and enter the WNBA Draft on Wednesday), gave everything she had to lead her team with 18 points. But it was not an easy shooting night as she went 6-of-24 from the floor under constant defensive hounding. Satou Sabally and Erin Boley added 16 and 14 points, respectively. Oregon shot 36.8 percent for the game, its third-worst shooting performance of the season.
Oregon led 64-61 with 6:12 to go in the game but would score only one more basket the rest of the way, a 3 by Sabally. The Ducks’ second-leading scorer, Ruthy Hebard, was limited to four points as she battled inside against Baylor’s bigs.
TAKEAWAYS: How Baylor defeated Oregon
“We just didn’t get it done tonight, bottom line,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said.
Baylor (36-1) will keep playing for a title while the Ducks close out the best season in school history at 33-5.
“That’s a great basketball team,” Graves said of Baylor. “We tried our best, we worked hard. In the end, they made plays and we didn’t. We certainly belong here.
“Just to get here. To be in a position to win the game, is all I can ask. We had a chance to win the game, but credit them. They made plays down the stretch. They are really, really good.”
Ionescu addressed only briefly whether she has thought about whether she will return next season. Her answer was a simple ‘no’. But her postgame comments suggested she is leaving the door open to return for her senior season.
“We continue to learn. We were put in positions we haven’t been put before. I think this is just going to make us more hungry,” Ionescu said. “We got to this stage that our program has never got to. So I think learning through this game and learning through the previous years, it's just going to get us ready to want to come back.”
Graves echoed that sentiment, talking about a loaded team that will return next season, perhaps with its record-shattering floor leader.
“No, we're not going anywhere. This is a program that is going to be around,” Graves said. “Hey, listen, now we don't have to say 'next year.' This is the first time we're here. If we can get here again or sometime soon, now we'll have a little bit of experience and that always helps.”
After the game, Mulkey said she asked her players why they came to Baylor.
“All of them screamed, ‘To play for championships!’ Well, you're getting to play for a championship. Those kids in that locker room get to play for a championship,” Mulkey said. “Perseverance was a big word. We persevered. We're playing Sunday. Y'all be here.”