By Ben Everett | Sports Editor
TAMPA, FLA. – No. 1 seed Baylor women’s basketball looks to capture its third National Championship when it faces defending champion No. 1 seed Notre Dame at 5 p.m. Sunday in Tampa, Fla.
The Lady Bears (36-1) will face the Fighting Irish (35-3) for the title for the second time. The two teams met in Denver in 2012, where Baylor completed its 40-0 season with an 80-61 win to claim its second National Championship. The Lady Bears were eliminated by Notre Dame in the Elite Eight in 2014 and 2015.
The Fighting Irish are a veteran team, starting four seniors and one junior (who could leave for the WNBA after this season). Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, like Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, owns two National Championships. The Irish won the whole thing in 2001 in addition to last year’s title. Mulkey said she doesn’t need to tell her team how good Notre Dame is.
“[Our team knows] how good [Notre Dame is],” Mulkey said. “They know they’re the defending champs. They know basically they play five kids that won’t be back next year other than potentially Jackie Young. They have experience in the game.”
The Irish used a dominant fourth quarter to take down No. 2 seed UConn in the semifinal on Friday night, notching the program’s 999th win. Senior guard Arike Ogunbowale scored 14 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter to help Notre Dame overcome a nine-point deficit. McGraw said the team’s experience helped them get to this point, and it will help them more in the title game.
“I think there’s no substitute for experience,” McGraw said. “I mean, really, at the end of the game I thought last night we looked really poised, didn’t lose our composure, did some great things defensively. I think being in this moment before I think will help us.”
Baylor isn’t lacking in experience either. The Lady Bears boast two seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup; however, this is their first time in the Final Four. Those upperclassmen stepped up in the thrilling 72-67 win over Oregon in the national semifinal. Senior center Kalani Brown and junior forward Lauren Cox combined for 43 points and 18 rebounds, while senior guard Chloe Jackson drove in for the tie-breaking layup late in the fourth quarter to lift Baylor to victory.
While Oregon has a more perimeter-oriented offense, Notre Dame provides more of a threat on the interior. The Irish lead the country in points in the paint while the Lady Bears sit at third. Moreover, senior forward Brianna Turner, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, is a force on the inside. Brown said Turner has all the tools a dominant post player should have.
“She’s long, athletic,” Brown said. “She’s definitely a shot blocker. Very fundamentally sound, slipping screens and stuff. You really have to be on your toes with her, you never know what you might need from her. I’ve only watched her from a far, but she’s a really great player.”
Baylor’s motto this season was “Together to Tampa.” As they prepare for the title game, Cox said Mulkey does not want the Lady Bears to be content with just making it this far.
“[Mulkey has] always told us that we can’t be content with just getting here,” Cox said. “Our goal was to get to Tampa and now that we’re here we can’t be content with just being here. We have to stay focused and want to win it all.”