By Krista Pirtle
DENVER — Unfinished business has not been the motto of only the Baylor Lady Bears this season.
After losing 76-70 to Texas A&M in the National Championship last year, Notre Dame claims this slogan as well.
“It’s going to be a good game,” No. 42 center Brittney Griner said. “We beat them earlier in the season, but we’ve got to erase that. This is the game everybody wants.”
These two teams played earlier this season in Waco in the preseason WNIT tournament championship.
Griner recorded 32 points and 14 rebounds, and the Lady Bears went on to win 94-81.
But that game was only the fourth game of the season for both teams.
In that match-up, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw was disappointed with the way her team guarded Baylor’s other players.
Whereas the Stanford matchup for Baylor was seen as a battle in the paint, the backcourt is the focus against Notre Dame.
The Irish are led by Nancy Lieberman Award-winning junior point guard Skylar Diggins who averages 16.8 points a game.
“She’s great all around,” sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims said about Diggins. “She has great vision she can take it off the dribble and pull up two, and that’s what makes her so great. And she makes everyone around her better. And we play U.S.A. team ball together. Played on one team. She’s a great teammate, was a great teammate, and I look for a challenge on Tuesday.”
Offsetting Diggins will be Sims whose defensive efforts fuel her scoring.
In the backcourt, Notre Dame’s Natalie Novosel, Brittany Mallory and Kayla McBride will be key behind Diggins.
Their ability to nail triples against UConn, especially in overtime, is what punched their ticket to the championship game.
For Baylor, Nae Nae Hayden needs to have a game like she did against Tennessee, going 3 for 3 from behind the three-point line to pull defenders away from the paint to open up looks for the posts.
For junior Jordan Madden, her scoring will be needed like it was against Stanford, but her defense on Novosel will be key to this game.
As far as the frontcourt goes, Baylor has the advantage, especially when 6-foot-8 Griner towers over a 6-foot-3 defender.
Notre Dame’s Devereaux Peters and Natalie Achonwa have to find a way to match Baylor’s physical inside play and score enough themselves.
In November they combined to shoot 3 for 13 from the field for six points.
Against Stanford, Griner was quiet on the stat lines, but that did not mean she wasn’t a game changer.
Griner won the 2012 Naismith Trophy, given to Women’s College Player of the Year.
Head coach Kim Mulkey was named Division I Head Coach of the Year. Both awards were named Tuesday.
Her inside presence made it hard to finish back cuts for the Cardinal, resulting in defensive boards and transition buckets for the Lady Bears.
One pass is not enough for the Irish if an open shot presents itself.
Notre Dame thrives doing the things that Stanford successfully executed against Baylor: pick-and-rolls, backdoor cuts, bringing the bigs to the high post.
Notre Dame’s 81 points against the Lady Bears are the most Baylor has allowed all season.
“I’d say neither team played very good defense, did we?” Mulkey said.
“I don’t know that I anticipate it to be a high-scoring game. I think you’ll see two teams that will buckle down and guard each other. If it is high scoring, I just hope we’re the one that has the most points,” she said
With the altitude and the 39 games already played this season, the depth of the bench for both teams will be important.
The bigger the game is usually means the shorter the bench, and that has happened at Notre Dame who has Achonwa as its only reserve.
As for Baylor, Terran Condrey and Brooklyn Pope will provide spurts of energy coming off the bench.
Condrey helped spark a run in the second half against Stanford that allowed the Lady Bears to pull away and land a spot in the title game.
While both teams in the national championship have Texas A&M to thank for the determination to get here, Baylor’s mindset appears stronger than Notre Dame’s.
The Lady Bears are too close to let their goal slip through their fingers Tuesday night.