Baylor earns chance for perfect season
Brittney Griner was constantly hounded and double-teamed, scoring only one basket in the second half Sunday night. So the Baylor supporting cast jumped in and carried the unbeaten Lady Bears to the national championship game.
Griner finished with 13 points and nine rebounds to lead Baylor to a 59-47 win over Stanford and into the women’s NCAA final against Notre Dame.
“We’re not the Brittney Griner show,” Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey said. “Brittney Griner is the face of women’s basketball, and she deserves to be, but this team is bigger than Brittney. She will tell you that. Brittney Griner double- and triple-teamed allows other players on her team to have opportunities.”
Baylor (39-0) is one victory from becoming the seventh women’s team to finish undefeated and has a chance at being the first squad in NCAA history to win 40 games in a season.
The top-seeded Lady Bears will face another No. 1 seed and a familiar foe Tuesday night for the title. The Irish beat UConn, 83-75, in an overtime thriller in the first semifinal.
Baylor and Notre Dame met in the preseason WNIT final, with the Lady Bears winning in Waco, 94-81, on Nov. 17.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Griner said. “We beat them earlier in the season, but we’ve got to erase that. This is the game everybody wants.”
Stanford (35-2) fell short in the Final Four for the fifth straight season, ending its school-record 32-game winning streak.
The Cardinal refused to let the 6-foot-8 Griner beat them, collapsing on her in the paint. The strategy worked for the first 20 minutes before the other Lady Bears started making shots.
And those players took advantage of them.
Trailing 31-29 early in the second half, the Lady Bears went on an 11-1 run keyed by Jordan Madden. The junior guard had an acrobatic three-point play and then a layup that made it 40-32. Griner followed with her only basket of the half, hitting a tough baseline turnaround that capped the burst.
The Cardinal could only get within six the rest of the game despite Nnemkadi Ogwumike’s best efforts. The senior led the Cardinal with 22 points and nine rebounds. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer took her out with about 30 seconds left and gave her a long embrace.
“No one feels good after a loss, especially if it’s in the Final Four,” Ogwumike said.
The 6-foot-2 forward, who will most likely be the top pick in the WNBA draft on April 16, did all she could to keep the Cardinal in the game, but got little help. Her younger sister, Chiney, who had such a strong sophomore season, was ineffective. She fouled out midway through the second half with just four points.
Baylor has been focused with the mantra of “Unfinished Business” all season long. Every player on the team is wearing a wristband with those two words on it. Mulkey said the team used the same motto the year it won its only title in 2005. The Lady Bears had been knocked out the year before in a last-second loss.
Stanford could easily claim that motto for itself, having matched UConn and LSU with its five-year Final Four run. But like the Lady Tigers, the Cardinal couldn’t win a title during their streak. Stanford hasn’t won a national championship since 1992.
These two teams hadn’t played since 2008 — the year before Griner showed up, but Ogwumike and her Cardinal teammates were eager for the chance. Ogwumike faced Griner in an AAU game back in high school, and that’s when she insists she learned to shoot 3-pointers because scoring in the paint was a big problem. Although Ogwumike missed all five of her 3-point attempts, she succeeded in drawing Griner away from the basket.
That opened up the middle, allowing the Cardinal to get a lot of easy backdoor layups. On the defensive end, the Cardinal packed it in, doubling Griner every time down the court. They dared any other Baylor player to beat them. Griner finished the first half taking just five shots, while her teammates combined to go 7 for 24.
The Lady Bears led 25-23 at the break as neither team could build more than a four-point lead in the first half.
Stanford didn’t change its strategy in the second half, but the other Baylor players started making plays.
“We were really well prepared and had a great game plan. We just struggled offensively and missed shots that would have helped us,” Stanford guard Toni Kokenis said. “Their offensive boards kind of hurt us. We needed to box out better.”
Stanford hit just two of its 17 attempts from 3-point range.
“We wanted to run on them, but we didn’t get out and go as well as we wanted to,” VanDerveer said. “They make things hard, they take you out of your normal thing. It took us that long to get the floor organized. We had some nice open looks and didn’t knock down shots.”
Terran Condrey scored 13 points and Odyssey Sims had 11 for the Lady Bears.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Griner said of Condrey’s big game. “She’s not real loud but you definitely hear her on the court.”
As usual, Griner put on a show in warmups, thrilling the crowd with a series of impressive dunks. The Associated Press Player of the Year has already dunked twice in the tournament, matching Candace Parker for most dunks by a woman in NCAA tournament play and during a collegiate career (seven).
Griner and Baylor football star Robert Griffin III have playfully talked about having a dunk contest next year. The Heisman Trophy winner was in the stands supporting the Lady Bears and gave Mulkey a big hug as they walked off the court.
Mulkey showed no ill effects from her bout with Bell’s palsy. She was recently diagnosed with the nerve disorder, but on Saturday she dismissed it as nothing more than an inconvenience.