By Jeffrey Swindoll
The Baylor Lady Bears’ phenomenal basketball season came to an end after losing to the No. 1 seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish 68-88 in South Bend, Ind. Monday night. Seniors Odyssey Sims, Makenzie Robertson and Mariah Chandler finish their college careers on a loss, but their last season saw unprecedented success with a shockingly young squad behind them.
Notre Dame went in to Monday night on an impressive 35-0 record. As a No. 1 seed, Notre Dame hosted the regional games with the luxury and advantage of playing in front of a loud home crowd. The atmosphere in South Bend mirrored that of the Lady Bears’ own fan base at the Ferrell Center. The stage was set in South Bend for an epic clash of two women’s basketball powerhouses.
As most big games play out, Monday’s game saw emotions peak and controversy occur for both sides.
Against Kentucky, three Baylor starters experienced first half foul trouble scares. Sims, sophomore guard Niya Johnson and freshman forward Nina Davis each picked up 3 fouls in the first half of the Kentucky game, and the same thing happened against Notre Dame. Luckily, the Lady Bears addressed those issues against Kentucky and won the game, but against an efficient team like Notre Dame, something has got to give.
The Lady Bears took the lead in the game for a short period of the first half, but Notre Dame gained it back. Baylor came close to Notre Dame on the scoreboard in the first half, but offensive fouls and poor shooting from Baylor crippled the Lady Bears points production. Big three pointers from Sims and freshman forward Imani Wright kept the Lady Bears kept Baylor in the game, but Notre Dame held a 12-point lead over Baylor at halftime.
The glaring problem for Baylor in the first half was fouling. All of Baylor’s starters put Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey in a tough position. Mulkey dealt with the decision of whether to keep key players with foul trouble in the game or not for the majority of the game. In an elimination game like this, there are not many second chances. Big games demand players to play big, but they cannot do that if they are on the bench with too many fouls. Mulkey had to gamble with her starters who each had 3 or more fouls going into the second the half.
Transitions buckets made a huge difference for Baylor in the second half. Notre Dame’s offense is predicated on guard penetration — strikingly similar to Kentucky in that respect. When Notre Dame would get in the lane and miss, the Lady Bears exploited the Fighting Irish guards being out of position. Baylor’s post players would immediately look for an outlet pass to Sims or Johnson to punish Notre Dame on the other end with quick breakaways to the basket.
With all the fouls being called on both ends, stoppage in play was frequent, making Baylor’s exhilarating transitional plays an effective boost of morale and momentum for the Lady Bears in a hostile Notre Dame crowd.
Things started to look up when offensive fouls went in the favor of the Lady Bears, thanks to Robertson’s multiple sacrificial plays of standing strong to take the charges from Notre Dame’s aggressive guards. Baylor pulled within 5 points with just over 10 minutes to go in regulation.
Just as Baylor started to see some light in the second half, the Lady Bears suffered a devastating blow — freshman forward Nina Davis fouled out. After a couple controversial offensive fouls called on Davis, she was forced to sit down with 7 minutes left in regulation and the Lady Bears were down by 11.
Sims, who just checked out with her fourth foul, came back on the court when Davis had to take a seat. Mulkey was left with only one of her offensive stars with Davis out. In the situation the Lady Bears were in, down by double-digits. Mulkey was seemingly left with no choice but to put Sims back in with four fouls.
The Lady Bears never found themselves back in reach of Notre Dame after that. It was a turning point in the game, and the Fighting Irish had it easy without having to guard Davis the rest of the game.
The final result became evident in the final three minutes. The Lady Bears had no gas left in the tank, and they certainly did not have enough time to rally against a late double-digit lead. The Fighting Irish took care of business and booked their spot in Nashville, Tenn. for the Final Four.
Baylor ended their season with tears, but hardly anyone, including themselves, would have thought the Lady Bears would be one game away from the Final Four this season. Mulkey worked with what she had, Sims stepped up to carry the torch one last time and the young players prepped themselves to take that torch from Sims after this season. The future is bright for Baylor Lady Bears basketball.