By Story by Ben Everett | Sports Editor, Video by Elisabeth Tharp | Broadcast Sports Director
TAMPA, FLA. – Baylor women’s basketball defeated Notre Dame 82-81 in a title game thriller on Sunday night in Tampa, Fla., to claim the National Championship.
When junior forward Lauren Cox went down with a knee injury in the third quarter, and Notre Dame came roaring back in the fourth quarter to tie the game after being down 17, things looked bleak for the Lady Bears.
But the experienced team led by senior guard and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Chloe Jackson, prevailed to capture the program’s third National Championship. Senior center Kalani Brown said the Lady Bears showed poise in overcoming that adversity.
“They got hot in that fourth quarter,” Brown said. “With everything going on, it was easy to get rattled and fall apart, but we didn’t […] I just told [Cox], ‘We did this for you.’ When she went down, we got a little rattled, but we had to come out and finish it for her.”
Jackson, two nights after hitting the go-ahead layup to lift the Lady Bears to a Final Four win over Oregon, drove in for the game-winning layup with five seconds remaining to seal the win against Notre Dame. Jackson said the play was the exact same one the Lady Bears ran against the Ducks.
Notre Dame senior guard Arike Ogunbowale, who hit the game-winning shot against Mississippi State in last year’s title game, went to the line for two free throws with one second left. Ogunbowale, an 80% free throw shooter this season, only made one of two as Baylor held on for the win.
Jackson finished with a team-high 26 points on 13-for-25 shooting while senior center Kalani Brown, also playing in her last game as a Lady Bear, scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said the two seniors were the engine for Baylor in the game.
“I thought Jackson really was the key to the game,” McGraw said. “We really couldn’t guard her. Brown gave us a lot of trouble, as well. Those two really played well.”
Jackson played the entire 40 minutes despite picking up her fourth foul with nine minutes left in the game. Sophomore guard DiDi Richards also played down the stretch with four fouls. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said she trusted her players to be able to play without fouling.
“I trusted [them],” Mulkey said. “There is no tomorrow, so why sit on the bench? I have to trust my kids. Our best chance of winning the basketball game when we were losing the basketball game was to have those kids out there.”
Baylor freshman forward NaLyssa Smith, filling in for the injured Cox, hit some timely shots in the fourth quarter, scoring six of Baylor’s 16 points in the final period. Brown said Smith was an important part of the win.
“NaLyssa got some big baskets,” Brown said. “She came in there like she would not be denied. She was a spark for sure.”
After turning the ball over twice, the Lady Bears shook off some early game jitters and converted seven of their first 10 field goal attempts to take a 15-5 lead midway through the first quarter.
Notre Dame chipped into Baylor’s lead thanks to Ogunbowale’s five first quarter points. The Lady Bears’ defense dominated the opening quarter, notching three blocks, two steals and holding Notre Dame to 21% shooting from the field. A fast break layup at the buzzer by senior guard Chloe Jackson gave Baylor a 25-14 lead after one.
Despite Richards being whistled for her second foul early in the second quarter, the Baylor defense continued to hinder Notre Dame. The Irish only converted three shots in the first five minutes of the second quarter as Baylor held a 33-20 lead with 4:49 remaining in the first half.
Ogunbowale started heating up again, scoring seven points down the stretch, but the Lady Bears still held a 43-31 lead at the break.
The second half opened with nothing but offense as the two teams traded basket-for-basket. The Irish cut into Baylor’s 13-point halftime lead, making it a nine point game just five minutes into the third quarter.
After going scoreless for two minutes, the Lady Bears finally strung together a few makes to extend their lead to 60-46 and prompt Notre Dame to call a timeout with 2:11 left in the third quarter.
With just over a minute left in the third quarter, Cox went down with an apparent knee injury and was taken off the court in a wheelchair.
After Jackson nailed a long jumper, Ogunbowale took the ball to the other end and drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make it a 66-55 game heading into the final quarter.
Notre Dame senior guard Maria Mabrey got hot from 3-point range in the fourth quarter, getting fouled on one from beyond the arc and draining three more to tie the game at 74 apiece with 4:55 remaining.
The teams traded baskets down the stretch and Jackson scored the final four points for the Lady Bears on a jumper and layup. When Ogunbowale’s second free throw went through, Baylor simply inbounded the ball, up by one, and let the clock hit zero.