TAMPA — After a 3-for-11 shooting night against Oregon in the national semifinal game, Baylor’s Chloe Jackson scored a team-high 26 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including a pivotal layup with 3.9 seconds left in the game. The Baylor Lady Bears escaped with an 82 – 81 victory over defending champion Notre Dame, winning the program’s third national championship and its first in seven years.
“I just came into the game confident,” said Jackson, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. “I was aggressive from the beginning, and that was the main thing.”
She started the game 5-for-5 and didn’t miss a shot until 7:44 remained in the second quarter.
With 1:22 remaining, star forward Lauren Cox, fell to the floor and clutched her left knee. She needed the assistance of a wheelchair to be taken to the locker room.
“I wanted to cry, honestly,” Jackson said when she saw Cox fall. “She just did so much to get us here. And it sucked to see that happen.” Cox later came back to the bench to giver her team extra motivation.
“It meant so much,” she said about Cox’s return. “She’s our leader. Just to see her face, still have her talking to us. She wasn’t thinking about herself. She wanted the best for us.”
With 9:43 remaining in the game, Jackson picked up her fourth shooting foul on a 3-point attempt from Marina Mabrey. Mabrey sank all three free throws and cut Baylor’s lead to single digits. Three minutes later, a Mabrey 3-pointer tied the game 74 - 74. The Irish had erased a 14-point deficit with 5:18 to go in regulation.
With the score tied at 78 with 0:34 remaining, Jackson sank a jumper in the paint to put the Lady Bears up 80-78. On the Irish’s next possession, Jessica Shepard sank two free throws to negate Jackson’s shot.
Jackson, unmoved, collected herself at the top of the key, and sprinted past Jackie Young and Brianna Turner. The ball left her right hand, grazed the backboard, rolled to the front of the rim, and dropped through the net. Turner, who blocked 108 total shots this year, whiffed. It was now 82-80 in favor of the Lady Bears.
A final obstacle appeared – a Baylor foul with 1.9 seconds left. Arike Ogunbowale, who hit game-winning shots in two consecutive Final Four games last year, was headed to the free throw line to possibly tie the game. The 80% free throw shooter took a deep breath, and arced her shot.
It had too much power.
The ball bounced on the rim. First, the back. Then, the front. Then, it fell to the left.
“We were just praying, just hoping she’d miss one. And she did,” Jackson told ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
Jackson has played for three different universities. She’s had to watch from the bench for two years. She fractured her foot four games into her freshman season at N.C. State. Due to an NCAA rule, she sat out an entire year after transferring to LSU. In her first full year of playing at LSU, she averaged 13.1 points as a shooting guard. She performed better in her second year, and led the Tigers in scoring with 18.1 points per game. LSU exited the Women’s NCAA Tournament in the first round that year. Jackson wanted more.
She wanted to play with legendary coach Kim Mulkey at Baylor. But there was another hitch. Baylor didn’t need a shooting guard.
After dismissing point guard Alexis Smith at the beginning of the season and losing another one via transfer, Baylor then needed a point guard. Jackson, knowing the switch would be difficult, took the risk.
“I wanted to show that I could play the point guard position and shooting guard,” she said. “[Coach Kim] Mulkey really pushed me to become the best player I could be. Mulkey’s a great coach. Once I got the plays down, I could really be that leader she wanted me to be.”
As her layup sank, Jackson’s parents, wearing bold yellow shirts with pictures of her on the front, proudly cheered and screamed.
“I did not have one input,” she joked about the shirts. “It was a surprise seeing it. My mom told me during the autograph session they were getting shirts. I’m like, ‘what shirts? Why aren’t you guys here?’ Sure enough, they had my face on them.”
Jackson is projected to go in the third round of the WNBA draft, according to ESPN. Perhaps another championship is in store for her. Hopefully, with less obstacles in front of her.