By Doug Feinberg/The Associated Press
DENVER (AP) — All season long, Baylor has been the best team led by the best player in the country.
And that just makes the stakes in Tuesday night’s NCAA championship a little higher.
Anything short of a women’s national title would be deemed a failure for Brittney Griner and her Lady Bears.
That may explain why Baylor hasn’t focused on an undefeated season, nor on becoming the first team in NCAA history to win 40 games. Griner and her teammates just want to win the school’s second title.
Standing in the way is Notre Dame, a team on a mission ever since losing in last year’s championship to Texas A&M and sparked by maybe the nation’s second-most dynamic player, All-American Skylar Diggins.
The tournament’s top seed against No. 2. Just the way the selection committee drew it up.
“40-0 was never really the goal,” said Griner at a news conference Monday. “We have team goals each year and our goal was to win a national championship.
“If you lose, you can’t win a national championship. You’ve got to go 40-0 now.”
Griner knows that despite the Lady Bears’ incredible season, how it’s judged will depend on Tuesday night.
“We don’t have that ring yet,” the 6-foot-8 junior phenom said. “That’s the main goal. Until we get that, we’re going to feel like we haven’t really done anything.”
The Irish know the feeling, having fallen just short last season to Texas A&M. Notre Dame (35-3) has been focused on getting back to this game all season long. Soon after Diggins and her Notre Dame teammates arrived back in South Bend after the championship last year, the junior guard went to the locker room. She put up on the chalkboard in the locker room, “Unfinished Business: 76-70, 15:52,” the time referring to the game’s turning point.
“We’ve had one goal all season long,” Diggins said. “We’ve wanted to get back here and play in this game.”
The Irish have been one of the best teams in the country all season long, but don’t have to worry about the weight of expectations. Most people are picking Baylor to win, including President Barack Obama, who predicted the title game correctly.
“I think when you’re undefeated you have a lot of confidence that you’re playing with, but at the same time it’s just a little bit of pressure of knowing that you’ve never lost. And when it gets down to the end of the game, you hope they feel that pressure,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
“I think they have had a great season. They have one thing they want to do, same goal we have. And we’re back to being the underdog. Finally. It’s taken us a long time to get our green jerseys on. And we can now even be more loose and the pressure is all on them.”
With a win, Baylor would become the seventh team to run through a season unbeaten, joining Connecticut — which has done it four times, Tennessee and Texas. It would be the school’s second national championship. Baylor also won in 2005.
“Win or lose tomorrow we’re going to head back to Waco,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “Unfortunately, we’re 39-0 and you don’t want to lose that last game. We know that whoever beats us, just make sure that you didn’t beat yourself. Make sure that team was better than you that night. If you do that, you can’t fault your effort.”
The Lady Bears have used the same “unfinished business” mantra as the Irish after losing to Texas A&M in the regional final last season. Mulkey had the saying put up in the locker room, on notebooks and even handed out hundreds of those silicon wristband reminders to everyone associated with the program.
“I think it’s a testament to the players. Coaches can come up with mottos and motivational tactics, but it boils down to those players,” Mulkey said. “They have to have that feeling I had last year, don’t want to have it again. Both programs and teams have done that. They have more seniors than we do. They made it to the national championship game last year. I guess you’d say they have a little more experience getting to title game than we do.”
The two teams met earlier this season in Waco and Baylor came away with a 13-point victory. That was for the preseason WNIT title.
Griner was unstoppable. She had 32 points and 14 rebounds, making 14 of her 18 shots with five blocks. Odyssey Sims had 25 points in that win.
“They won the first matchup, but we’re too different teams now,” Diggins said. “We’ve both gotten a lot better.”
The biggest difference for Baylor is that the supporting cast has jumped in. While Griner and Sims had quiet nights in the Lady Bears’ 59-47 victory over Stanford in the national semifinals, other players stepped up.
While the Lady Bears were able to slowly pull away from the Cardinal, Notre Dame had to pull out a thrilling, 83-75 overtime victory over rival Connecticut. Seniors Natalie Novosel, Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory all made big plays to help the Irish.
Now they are one victory away from winning the school’s second national championship, joining the 2001 team.
“I would love for them to go out national champions,” McGraw said. “It’s really special. For this group, it’s been a special group as long as they’ve been here. We’ve treasured every moment this year and I’ll be sad to see them go.”