Notre Dame comes up short, losing 80-61 to Baylor
DENVER (AP)—Notre Dame’s trio of senior starters shrunk in the shadow of Brittney Griner.
The Irish lost the national championship for the second straight season Tuesday night, beaten by Baylor and its superstar center 80-61.
A year ago, Notre Dame let a late lead slip away in a six-point loss to Texas A&M in the title game, so they were eager for atonement. But the seniors who transformed Notre Dame’s program and shook up the Big East during their careers in South Bend went out with a whimper.
Devereaux Peters was in foul trouble all night—exactly what she said she couldn’t afford to do against Griner—and finished with seven points and three rebounds.
“Not really what you want to do the last game of your career,” said Peters, who logged just 15 minutes.
Leading scorer Natalie Novosel missed all 11 of her shots, every one of them seemingly altered by Griner. Novosel scored five points, 10 below her average and 23 fewer than she had against Baylor in the WNIT final in November.
“It was just not my night,” Novosel said.
Brittany Mallory, the shooting star on Notre Dame’s semifinal victory against Connecticut, scored three points and injured her left shoulder on a hard fall to the floor in the final minutes.
“It’s such a tough way for their career to end,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, sobbing.
Notre Dame’s senior class had 117 wins, but Griner, with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, barely gave them a chance at No. 118.
The Irish (35-4) hung tough for 25 minutes even as Griner was getting her buckets, boards and blocks in bunches. They had trimmed an early 14-point deficit to 42-39 when Peters picked up her fourth foul on a hard pick on Odyssey Simms and took a seat.
“It was very winnable,” Novosel said. “We were lucky at halftime to only be down six. We wanted to come out and be the aggressors in the second half. That didn’t happen.”
Baylor, the first team ever to go 40-0, closed with a spectacular 38-22 run.
“We’re fighters. We never quit,” Peters said. “We just couldn’t get key stops when we needed to.”
Throughout their season, the Irish were driven by the motto “unfinished business,” but so was Baylor, which was dumped by Texas A&M in the regional finals. The Lady Bears even had the mantra printed up on notebooks, banners and bright green rubber wristbands as a constant reminder that they needed to take care of business this time around.
They did, denying the Irish their second national title and first since 2001.
Griner scratched out the “Un” in a sign on the court as confetti rained down on the Lady Bears.
Notre Dame didn’t get to ditch the motto.
The Irish were trying to do something that no other team had done in the NCAA era by knocking off an unbeaten squad in the title game.
Notre Dame also lost to Baylor in the WNIT final, 94-81 on Nov. 17 in Waco, when Griner dominated to the tune of 32 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
While Griner is coming back for her senior season and a shot at becoming a two-time champ, the path back to the Final Four is a lot more arduous for the Irish, who are graduating several seniors.
The Irish have won four of their last five games against perennial power Connecticut, including an 83-75 thriller in overtime in the semifinals Sunday night, and they’ve handed Geno Auriemma’s Huskies their only two losses in 22 NCAA tournament games since 2009.
The Irish return just two starters in guards Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride, who kept the Irish close for much of the game and finished with 20 and 11 points, respectively.
McGraw’s squad has its own share of streak-busting. They ended UConn’s 112-game home winning streak in 2005 and this season snapped the Huskies’ 57-game Big East conference winning streak in early January.
Griner and the rest of the unbeaten Lady Bears just weren’t going to be denied, though.
The Irish’s game plan was to engage Baylor’s 6-foot-8 shot-blocking machine in the high post to open lanes to the basket. When Griner stepped out, the Irish drove like crazy. When she hedged to the baseline, they took quick jumpers from around the free throw line.
The strategy kept the Irish close for a while. They trailed 34-28 at the half and cut that deficit in half in the first five minutes of the second half before Peters went to the bench with her fourth foul.
Playing mostly zone and doubling Griner was “fairly effective in the first half,” McGraw said. “In the second half when we got into foul trouble it destroyed our game plan.
“In the second half we were afraid to foul. When she got the ball we didn’t lean on her and she shot over us. She made great shots, she’s a great player. She was unstoppable,” McGraw added. “It would have been great to see Devereaux play 39 minutes, but I don’t think it would have changed a lot. She’s one-of-a-kind.”
When Diggins, the Big East’s Player of the Year, arrived at the Final Four in Denver, she declared, “It (stinks) being the bridesmaid, you know what I mean? I want to get married. I want to be the main one, I don’t want to be the side chick.”
The junior did her part, but after watching somebody else cut down the nets once again, she had nothing but praise for the seniors who let greatness slip from their grasp.
“Being able to lead this team to back-to-back national championship games, it’s amazing. I hate that it ends on a game like this, because you fail to see everything they did to get to this point,” Diggins said. “… We’ll all keep in touch. They’re like my sisters. We’re going to miss them. Very proud of them. I know the Irish fans are proud, as well.”