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DENVER -- In the year of chalk, 2012 has given us a fitting ending. The two teams left standing to play for the national championship were the top two overall seeds -- Baylor and Notre Dame -- and both reached this point inspired by a similar refrain.
The Lady Bears have worn it on their sleeves (and literally on T-shirts and bracelets). "Unfinished business" has been their motto since November, with last season's Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M serving as the motivation to win a title in 2012. The Fighting Irish didn't attach a slogan to it, but Notre Dame has openly admitted to being driven by a loss to the Aggies. The Irish's came in last April's national championship game. Now they are the first team since Tennessee in 2004 to lose in a title matchup and make a return trip the following season (the Lady Vols lost to Connecticut in 2003 and again to the Huskies in 2004).
Pivotal losses in 2011 to Texas A&M aren't all these teams share. They each have a national championship in the new century. They arguably have the two most fashion-savvy coaches in the game. And without argument, they have the two most recognizable names and faces in women's college basketball in Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins.
|Brittney Griner, left, had 32 points and 14 rebounds and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins scored 27 points when they met Nov. 20.|
Baylor and Notre Dame played earlier this season. On Nov. 20, the two met in Waco, Texas, with Baylor winning 94-81. It was just the fourth game of the season for both teams. Now, Baylor takes aim at its place in history as the first team to go 40-0. Just six teams have gone undefeated in women's Division I history.
Perhaps no team in the country executes its offense as well as Notre Dame. Only one team, UT Martin, averaged more points per game this season than the Irish (80.1 versus 79.2). The 81 points Notre Dame scored against Baylor were by far the most the Lady Bears surrendered all season. Versatility is Notre Dame's calling card. The guards can shoot the 3 and are fearless going to the basket, something that will be tested by Griner on Tuesday night. Bigs Devereaux Peters and Natalie Achonwa are each comfortable in the high and low post, and those sets are the cornerstone of Notre Dame's game plan.
The Irish constantly put pressure on the opposing defense with their ability to pass, and they are unselfish even when a good shot presents itself. If there is a better one, Notre Dame finds it. Perhaps it's the by-product of having so many veterans. Perhaps having a player as special as Skylar Diggins makes it work. Or maybe coach Muffet McGraw has instilled this as part of the culture. Whatever the origin, Notre Dame seems to have found the perfect balance between unselfishness and a group of players unafraid to make a play.
As the Lady Bears proved Sunday night against Stanford, they are a defense-first team. They leave few areas to exploit, and on the rare occasions something does break down, Baylor has the ultimate fix-it in Griner. Open driving lanes, which the guards don't allow too often, are still looked at with a second thought because opponents know Griner is back there somewhere. What makes it even tougher on opponents is Baylor's commitment. With "unfinished business" on their minds, the Lady Bears rarely take a possession off, much less a game. Certainly, with one game remaining until perfection, that won't happen Tuesday night. In what is fitting, Notre Dame should present the Baylor defense with its biggest challenge of the season, much like it did Nov. 20.
When the teams met in November, neither point guard did much to stop the other. Sims, a sophomore, had 25 points, 6 assists and 6 steals. Her ability to penetrate got her to the line 14 times. Diggins scored 27 points but had to shoot more (20 field goal attempts) to get those points, had only three assists (nearly three below her average) and, most telling, turned over the ball seven times.
Sims was not at her offensive best against Stanford, with just 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting and three assists, but she has otherwise been a big-game player during her short career. Diggins is as reliable as a point guard can be. Confidence is not a problem for either player. Which one establishes herself as the most confident early on and which becomes the most efficient for 40 minutes will go a long way toward determining the winner.
She isn't always spectacular. Florida held her without a point for the first 12 minutes in the second round. Tennessee forced Griner to miss seven of her first 10 shots. But eventually, her presence has gotten the best of everyone. Perhaps Griner's most underrated quality is her patience. Even in those games earlier in the tournament, and on Sunday night when she was constantly triple-teamed, no one saw Griner get frustrated. The freshman Griner might have. The junior version just keeps playing.
Destiny Williams became her front-line running mate, especially in the second half of the season, and can be a big factor. The 6-1 junior nearly averaged a double-double this season and takes some rebounding pressure off Griner. Brooklyn Pope does the same off the bench without as much offensive ability.
The biggest concern for Notre Dame -- which plays a four-guard lineup -- has to be its post defense. That has been an area of weakness all season. Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson was extremely effective Sunday night, West Virginia exploited the Irish down low in an upset earlier in the season, and most importantly, Griner dominated Notre Dame in November with 32 points on 14-for-18 shooting and 14 rebounds. In fact, Baylor scored 52 points in the paint during that meeting.
Peters and Achonwa will have to take a page out of Stanford's book and use their high-low post game to pull Griner away from the basket. That will give one of them a chance to score inside and a better opportunity on the offensive glass. The bigger concern will be defending Griner because 6-2 Peters and 6-3 Achonwa are neither as long nor as athletic as Stanford's Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike.
What might be underrated in Diggins' game is her toughness, and that's probably because she plays alongside the ultra-hard-nosed Novosel. If Diggins is the straw that stirs the Notre Dame drink, then Novosel might be the ice that anchors it. She is a skilled offensive player with a grinder's mentality. No better moment illustrates her game than the offensive rebound and reverse layup that she scored with 4.6 seconds left to send Sunday's national semifinal against UConn to overtime.
Brittany Mallory plays much the same way, although she isn't the offensive threat that Novosel is. Mallory is generally looked to for her defense, but Sunday night proved she also isn't afraid to take big shots. Sophomore Kayla McBride wasn't a big factor against UConn, but she also demonstrated she wasn't afraid of the moment and is still a double-figure scoring threat.
Baylor could use some of the spot-up shooting from Kimetria Hayden that the junior can provide. It wasn't there Sunday night, but Hayden's 3-pointers were as responsible as anything Baylor did for ending Tennessee's season in Des Moines, Iowa. Jordan Madden is a topflight defender, and her matchup with Novosel could be pivotal.
Advantage: Notre Dame.
Baylor is not exceptionally deep, either, but Sunday night proved that Terran Condrey is still a vital part of the Lady Bears. They might not have beaten Stanford without her. The senior guard was the one Baylor perimeter player confident enough to take the jump shots the Cardinal were offering an open invitation to. Condrey's 13 points equaled Griner for the team lead.
Pope played a mere two minutes Sunday, but her rebounding and toughness could be a factor against Notre Dame.
Both clubs have played 2012 looking to avenge an unsatisfying ending to 2011, but the mission of the Lady Bears has been such a dominant theme that it is hard to imagine them not finishing the job. They have been singularly driven by this quest for a championship. That isn't to say that Notre Dame's title game experience won't help or that the bitterness of last year's close call against A&M isn't driving the Irish. Baylor's focus on this prize just feels different.
1. Notre Dame's strategy: Tara VanDerveer gave Muffet McGraw a blueprint to at least slow down Griner. The Irish certainly need to do things differently than they did in Waco in November. The twists, or mere adaptations, that Notre Dame can employ from Stanford might dictate the Irish's chances.
2. Which Baylor role player steps up: Sunday night it was Condrey. The first time these teams met it was Williams. Hayden was a difference-maker in the Des Moines regional final against Tennessee. It always seems to happen. If this ends up being the night someone doesn't step up, this game becomes more of an even tug-of-war.
3. Brittney Griner: The national semifinal against Stanford seemed to show that Griner is the ultimate X factor. In women's college basketball history, perhaps no one changes individual games as resoundingly as she does. Without even dominating on the stat sheet, Griner made the Cardinal change so much of what they do, and that ultimately dictated the outcome. Notre Dame's biggest weakness is defending topflight post players. The Irish face the best Tuesday night.
Baylor. For a week now, the prevailing thought has been that Notre Dame was the team best-suited to possibly beat Baylor. Now the Fighting Irish have that shot. But a sizable difference remains between being the team "most likely to have a chance" and actually beating the Lady Bears. Plenty will have to go right for Notre Dame to win, and even then it might not be enough. The Lady Bears have gotten too close to realizing their plan that originated March 30, 2011, the day after they lost to Texas A&M in the regional final, to let this get away now.