TAMPA, Fla. — On one bench is one of the most talented starting fives in the history of college basketball, a Notre Dame team that could end up having five players taken in the WNBA Draft next week.
On the other is a Baylor team with a giant front line and a defense so smothering that they held Sabrina Ionescu, the best player in the game, scoreless in the fourth quarter of the semifinal win over Oregon.
Both squads will put it on the line Sunday night when they meet in the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game at Amalie Arena.
A victory over the Bears would put the Irish in an exclusive club. Baylor would become the fourth school to win consecutive titles, joining Southern California, Tennessee and Connecticut. It also would be the first team not named UConn to do so since Tennessee did it in 2007 and 2008.
Bears coach Kim Mulkey has an appreciation for how hard it is to repeat as a champion. Baylor is shooting for its first title since 2012, when it beat Notre Dame for the championship. The year after winning that game, the Bears were upset by Louisville in the Sweet 16.
“It’s hard,” Mulkey said. “It’s hard to win championships. You can be the favorite and not win them. I’ve been the favorite and not won. There are no guarantees in this business. That’s why you cherish the moments you can.”
Enjoying the moment is something that Irish coach Muffet McGraw learned to do this season.
Notre Dame returned nearly every player this season from the team that defeated Mississippi State, 61-58, in the title game last year. The Irish have perhaps the most visible player in the game in Arike Ogunbowale, who after hitting a last-second buzzer-beater to win the national championship last year won an ESPY award, appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show and competed in Dancing with the Stars.
Notre Dame was favored to return to the title game, which produced more than a little pressure.
“I think the journey this year has been difficult for different reasons than it was last year,” McGraw said. “I think the expectation always weighs a little heavier on you. I don’t think it weighed quite as heavy on the players as it did on the staff because we kept thinking, ‘We’re supposed to win, be here.’
“After we beat Stanford [in the Elite Eight], it was a big feeling of relief, more so than excitement. After [Friday] night’s win, I think the excitement is definitely back.”
The excited McGraw did a jig at center court after Notre Dame beat Connecticut in a semifinal.
After Baylor’s Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox scored 22 and 21, respectively, against Oregon in the other semifinal, Mulkey took a timeout of sorts by squatting on the court as the team rushed out to celebrate the win.
Said Mulkey: “I just looked at them and thought, ‘This is why you coach’ . . . I just wanted to watch them.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
NOTRE DAME Category BAYLOR
Fighting Irish Nickname Lady Bears
Muffet McGraw Coach Kim Mulkey
31st season 17th season
35-3 Record 36-1
2 National titles 2
9 Final Four appearances 3
Notre Dame starters: Marina Mabrey (12.5), Jackie Young (15.1), Brianna Turner (14.4), Jessica Shepard (16.8), Arike Ogunbowale (21.5)
Baylor starters: Chloe Jackson (11.3), DiDi Richards (7.2), Juicy Landrum (11.2), Lauren Cox (13.2), Kalani Brown (15.7)