- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DENVER -- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was in this position once as a player at Louisiana Tech. She entered the last game of her freshman season, 1980-81, with a perfect season hanging in the balance.
Win, and you're a historical success. Lose, and -- fair or not -- that one defeat ends up defining your entire season. That's what Mulkey and the Lady Bears face Tuesday night in the NCAA title game against Notre Dame (ESPN and ESPN3, 8:30 ET).
"We're 39-0, and you don't want to lose that last game," Mulkey said. "But if we were 30-10, we wouldn't want to lose the last game.
"We've said all year long that whoever beats us, just make sure you didn't beat yourself. Make sure that team was better than you that night. And Notre Dame was here last year."
Indeed, the Irish are in their second consecutive national final, and they're trying to do what no other team has in the NCAA era: knock off an unbeaten squad in the last game of the season.
"That would be quite a story, wouldn't it?" Irish guard Skylar Diggins said. "But why wouldn't you choose Baylor to win the game? They beat us before this season by 13. They're undefeated."
Diggins was pragmatically putting herself in the shoes of a bystander, and she's right: Baylor is the so-called logical pick. Of course, Diggins and the Irish hope to upend that logic and make some history of their own by stopping 40-0 from happening.
Previously, six teams in NCAA tournament play have gone into the final perfect, and all of them stayed that way: Texas (1986), UConn (1995, 2002, '09, '10) and Tennessee (1998).
Louisiana Tech did it in the next-to-last AIAW tournament in 1981, and two other teams also finished unbeaten in the AIAW era: Immaculata (1973) and Delta State (1975).
Five times in the NCAA tournament, unbeaten teams have lost before the championship game. Vermont (1992, '93) and Liberty (1998) fell in the first round. UConn (1997) lost in the Elite Eight. And Louisiana Tech -- in 1990, when Mulkey was an assistant at her alma mater -- fell in the national semifinals to Auburn.
Basically, though, when the unbeaten locomotive is chugging into its last stop, it's extremely hard to derail it.
"When you're undefeated, you have a lot of confidence that you're playing with," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "But at the same time, it's just a little bit of pressure knowing that you've never lost. When it gets down to the end of the game, you hope [Baylor] feels that pressure."
So far, the Lady Bears haven't shown that. They've seemed just the right combination of loose and relaxed but also serious about taking care of business.
"This is the game we've been waiting for all year," Baylor center Brittney Griner said.
You could say the same for Notre Dame, after the Irish's 76-70 loss to Texas A&M last year. They've replayed that game in their minds over and over, the same way Baylor has done with its 2011 Elite Eight loss to the Aggies.
So here they are still standing at the end of the 2011-12 season, which is a good time to take stock of both programs. Either Mulkey or McGraw will win her second NCAA title as a coach Tuesday. Only four other coaches have more than one: Tennessee's Pat Summitt has eight, UConn's Geno Auriemma seven, and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and Southern California's Linda Sharp two each.
In the case of VanDerveer and Sharp, their championships came in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the past 20 years, no program besides UConn and Tennessee has been able to experience a title more than once. But Tuesday, another one will.
"We're happy to be in the conversation now of being an elite program that can get to the Final Four," said McGraw, who has led the Irish this far now four times, with their previous title coming in 2001.
This is Baylor's third Final Four, and several of the standouts from the Lady Bears' 2005 title team are here to watch. They know how far Baylor has come.
"We were bottom of the Big 12 when I was hired," said Mulkey, who took over at Baylor in 2000-01. "We've gradually grown the program. The hardest part is not growing it, but maintaining it.
"Tennessee and Connecticut have pretty much dominated like Louisiana Tech did in the early '80s. I've been a part of those dominant programs, and if Baylor can maintain it and keep it rolling, we'll be just as proud as any other school in the country."
McGraw came to Notre Dame in 1987, and the Irish made their Final Four breakthrough in 1997 as a true underdog team. Notre Dame was a No. 6 seed that year, and defeated the Nos. 2, 3 and 5 seeds to make it to the national semifinals, where the Irish lost to eventual champion Tennessee.
Despite Notre Dame's previous success, that NCAA tournament run truly changed how the Irish were perceived. Four years later when the Irish won the NCAA title, they further established themselves but also kept UConn from having a chance at the 2001 championship. The Irish beat UConn in the national semifinals then, just as they did last year and Sunday here in Denver.
That seems even larger in retrospect, because UConn went on to win the title in 2002, '03 and '04. No team has won four NCAA women's hoops championships in a row, and UConn might have done that had the Huskies gotten past Notre Dame. (Although they still would have had to face Purdue in the final).
Notre Dame hasn't always had the pure talent it does now, nor the experience. Plus, there have been seasons in which the Irish were hit very hard by injuries. But even in years when the Irish weren't a title contender, they got some big NCAA tournament victories.
And while today's players weren't involved in those, McGraw was. It's something she can remind them of: The Irish really do have a tradition of being giant-slayers, thanks in part to a very good strategic coach.
McGraw's No. 9 seed Irish upset No. 1 seed Texas Tech on the Lady Raiders' home court in 1998. As a No. 11 seed, they knocked off No. 3 Kansas State on the Wildcats' home court in 2003. And in 2008, the No. 5 Irish upset No. 4 Oklahoma and Courtney Paris.
On Tuesday, Notre Dame will face another dominant center out of the Big 12. As Diggins said, in November, Baylor beat Notre Dame 94-81, and Griner had 32 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. So, no, the Irish aren't favored Tuesday despite their superstar Diggins, their gritty seniors and their Hall of Fame coach.
But as McGraw's past results show, she's doesn't mind being the underdog. Or as much of an "underdog" as a No. 1 seed in its second consecutive NCAA title game can be.
"We can now be even more loose," McGraw said, "and the pressure is all on them."