TAMPA — Baylor was still leading by 12 points in the national championship game, but with a minute and 22 seconds remaining in the third quarter, a sense of panic struck.
Lauren Cox, the team’s All-American junior forward, was on the ground in obvious pain. She had helped Baylor control the game and dominate the paint, totaling eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 28 minutes of play.
Her injury was bad enough that she had to leave the floor via wheelchair. When Kim Mulkey turned to the bench for a substitute, she called on perhaps the one player who wasn’t nervous or scared.
“My head just went blank,” Nalyssa Smith said. “At that point, everything was for Lauren… You just go out there with a clear head, so when you go out there, you’re just playing basketball.”
Although the Lady Bears had to rely on Smith — a freshman — to fill-in for the post player that means so much to them, they didn’t miss a beat.
Playing in place of Cox, Smith racked up eight points, four rebounds and a block over the next 11 minutes of play. She made her presence felt on the offensive and defensive ends, and helped Baylor beat Notre Dame 82-81 for the national championship.
“It feels amazing,” Smith said. “That’s what I came here to do, to win a national championship. To do it my freshman year is just amazing.”
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In all, Smith tallied 14 points and six rebounds in the win. She only missed two shots and she never turned the ball over. Her stats made her Baylor’s third-leading scorer and rebounder on the night. She did foul out with 48 seconds to play, but Smith had given Baylor enough to put them in a position to seal the victory.
It’s easy to say in hindsight, but without her play off the bench, Baylor may not have won its third national title.
“Nalyssa came in, and she kind of played like she was Lauren,” junior guard Juicy Landrum said. “I guess that just explains us. We’re tough.”
A 6-foot-2 forward from Converse, Texas, Smith has relished in a sixth-man role all season long. Outside of one start this season, she is typically Mulkey’s first player off the bench, averaging 15.7 minutes of playing time per-game.
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But it had been a while since Baylor really needed her. In the Lady Bears’ past three games, Smith had only played a combined 25 minutes and scored just 10 points.
Still, on Sunday, in the biggest game of her career, she was ready for the call.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Smith said. “I knew it was my time to step-up. I had to go in there and give everything I had.”
Smith is typically the player Mulkey calls on to fill in for one of her two stars in the post, Cox and Kalani Brown. But those substitutions usually come when one of those players are in foul trouble or need a breather, not when one of them had just suffered a game-ending injury.
While Smith believed in herself to get the job done against Notre Dame, her coaches and teammates did too.
Caitlin Bickle is a freshman like Smith, and often guards her in practice. In high school, they had battles in AAU ball. Bickle knew that Baylor wasn’t going to lose a step while Smith was on the floor.
“There was no doubt. The one thing (Smith) can do is score. The kid can play, at any level,” Bickle said. “I love her. She wants to win so much. She’s aggressive like a guy. Every single play she’s going to give all she has.”
Smith clicked with the starters right away when she relieved Cox. She grabbed an offensive board and then sank a jumper. When Notre Dame tied the game at 74-74 in the fourth quarter, Smith broke it by connecting on an unassisted mid-range shot. And then she stuffed Marina Mabrey’s attempt on the other end.
“(Smith) does not play like a freshman, she plays like an upperclassman,” Landrum said. “She can pick-and-pop, hit free throws, she’s great offensive rebounder. She brings energy.”
As Cox was being helped off the court and Smith was jogging onto it, Baylor assistant coach Sytia Messer couldn’t help but think back to some of Smith’s stellar performances this season.
In a win over UConn on Jan. 3, Smith scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds in 15 minutes of play. Against Arizona State on Nov. 11 — just the fourth game of her collegiate career — Smith had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
“Nalyssa Smith has been key for us in big-time games. You go back to Arizona State, against UConn, she came in and helped us win,” Messer said. “This kid has ice in her veins and I can’t wait to see how she grows. She’s the future.”
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.