TAMPA — The entirety of Amalie Arena, filled from the floor to the ceiling to watch Baylor and Notre Dame play for a national championship, went stone cold silent.
With 1:22 to go in the third quarter, Baylor forward Lauren Cox, one of the keys to the Bears’ run to the national title game, lay on the floor clutching her left knee and crying audibly in pain.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey went to her under the basket and leaned over into her ear to talk to her. Still, silence.
The Baylor players left the floor to regroup as Cox was lifted and taken off in a wheelchair.
What followed through the next 11 and a half minutes for the Baylor Bears was an exercise in grit and guts and survival instinct. And championship basketball.
CHAMPIONSHIP: 4 takeaways from Baylor's title game win over Notre Dame
Notre Dame, a team that has come back in big games before and will almost certainly do it again, began to erase a 16-point lead. A little more than five minutes later, thanks the 3-point shooting of Marina Mabrey and some big plays by last year’s Final Four hero Arike Ogunbowale, the game was tied at 74-74. With 3:18 to go, Ogunbowale hit the back end of two free throws to give the surging Irish a 77-76 lead.
But Baylor always had an answer. First Kalani Brown inside, which was close to an automatic in this game. And in the final moment, it was graduate transfer Chloe Jackson, the converted point guard playing the final moments with four fouls, who hit a jumper in a crowded lane with 33.2 seconds to go, and then drove past Notre Dame’s Jackie Young and Brianna Turner for a lay-up with 3.9 seconds to go to give Baylor an 82-81 lead.
When Ogunbowale missed a critical free-throw with 1.9 seconds to go, Baylor, who came into this tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, sealed its 82-81 win over the Irish to claim the program’s third national title, its first since 2012 and to cap a thrilling Final Four weekend in which the three games finished with a total margin of 11 points, the smallest in tournament history.
Cox was carried into the celebration by her teammates as the confetti fell. And they cheered wildly as she ascended the steps to the platform on crutches for the trophy celebration.
“My teammates and my coaches, they believe in me so much,” Jackson said on the floor after the game. “And for LC (Lauren Cox), she got us here and we had to finish the job for her.”
The emotion overtook Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who joins Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt as the only women’s coaches to win three NCAA titles, in the moments immediately after the game.
“I just know when you lose a big-time player in the middle of a national championship game you are not supposed to win. They just kept doing what we’ve been taught to do,” Mulkey said. “Lauren Cox, she’s the heart and soul of our team and I know she’s hurt because that kid would have gotten up…These kids give me everything they have and sometimes life isn’t fair.”
Mulkey said she needed to regroup as she walked back to her team’s huddle after Cox left the floor.
“From the time I left her on that floor to get to that huddle, I needed to regroup. I needed to regroup,” Mulkey said. “I needed to make them understand, ‘We're going to still win this basketball game.’ It will be a little bit tougher now, but we've got to battle, and we did.’
Jackson made it easier.
Jackson was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, an unlikely ending to a story for a guard that played for three programs in five seasons (North Carolina State, LSU and Baylor) and came to Waco last fall to take one more shot at being part of a championship program.
When Jackson arrived in Waco, she thought she would be a shooting guard. When the season began, Jackson was moved to point guard for the first time in her career.
And on a post-centric team, she found her moments, finishing the season as the team’s third-leading scorer behind Brown and Cox at 11.9 points a game.
But in the national title game, the moment found her.
Jackson, playing all 40 minutes, was 13 of 25 from the floor for 26 points. She dished out five assists with two steals. Playing with four fouls for almost the entire fourth quarter, she was the stabilizing force the Baylor needed after Cox’s injury, both emotionally and strategically, as the Irish mounted their comeback, hoping to exploit Cox’s absence in the paint.
Jackson also hit a key layup in the final minute that sent Baylor to its semifinal win over Oregon. Her winning basket in the title game was the same play.
“Coach just told me to get to the basket,” Jackson said.
The last day of Kalani Brown’s collegiate career also went pretty well. She was 10 of 16 from the floor for 20 points with 13 rebounds and two blocks. Baylor outscored Notre Dame 54-24 in the paint. Brown and Cox have been a tandem all year. Brown ran across the floor in the celebration to get to Cox and they shared a long embrace in the postgame celebration, an acknowledgement that they had gotten here together.
“I just told her, ‘We did this for you’,” Brown said. “When she went down, we were a little rattled. We had to pull it together and pull it out for her. The whole time, she was coaching us on the sidelines. She came out of that tunnel. She was still involved and it speaks volumes about who she is.”
Brown said winning a title was the last thing on her “checklist.”
“Now I have it checked off,” Brown said with a smile. “So I’m happy.”
Baylor led 25-14 at the end of the first quarter, and built a 17-point lead with 6:38 to go in the second. They held the lead in the game for nearly 36 of its 40 minutes. But they knew Notre Dame was a second half team and they would come storming back. They didn’t count on being without Cox.
When it was over there was relief and release.
“Our motto was 'Together to Tampa',” Jackson said.
And now the Bears leave Tampa as champs.