- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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DENVER -- Odyssey Sims walked from the end of the bench, found her coach, and wrapped Kim Mulkey in a hug.
Sims didn't want to miss the end-of-game love Baylor's coach was freely distributing. Mulkey had just mass substituted, allowing the green-and-gold fans to rain cheers on Baylor's starters. As those players walked off the court, Mulkey spent a long time whispering into the ear of star center Brittney Griner and forward Kimetria Hayden.
The Lady Bears were just a few seconds from their season-long goal of a national championship, and you got the sense that Mulkey was exhaling for the first time in awhile. So what if Sims had already fouled out? She wanted her player-coach moment. After all, she certainly deserved it.
Make no mistake, Griner is the engine of Baylor's train. She is the one propelling the Lady Bears to destinations never before reached. Such as the one they reached Tuesday night, when Baylor dominated the country's next-best team, Notre Dame, 80-61 to win an NCAA title and become the first college hoops team to finish 40-0.
Griner (26 points, 13 rebounds) is the engine, yes. But Sims is the conductor. She is the one in front of Baylor's train, meeting the opponent head on. And on Tuesday, Sims was the one standing face-to-face with, essentially, the only player who could have beaten Baylor: Notre Dame's All-America point guard Skylar Diggins.
Sims finished with 19 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in 38 minutes; Diggins finished with 20 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists in 37 minutes. Threat neutralized. "I just felt Odyssey ran the show out there," Mulkey said. "I thought she was the point guard I envisioned her to continue to be."
So how did Sims do it? Two second-half plays -- one from Sims, one from Diggins -- illustrate how the title game played out for each point guard.
With 1:44 left in the first half, Diggins caught the ball near the right wing, well outside the 3-point line. Sims was crouched low in front, shading toward Diggins' stronger left hand. Sims had been hounding Diggins throughout the first half, sometimes face guarding Diggins even when the Notre Dame junior was tucked away in the corner, opposite the side of the ball.
"She just harasses the ball so hard," Mulkey said of her sophomore guard.
On this possession, Diggins attacked left, Sims cut her off, and Diggins quickly crossed over to her right hand. Sims was beat. Diggins took a dribble toward the hoop and ran into Griner, whose 7-foot-4 wingspan seemed to gobble the remaining space. Diggins hesitated, forced Griner to bite, and then slipped past the left of Baylor's block machine. Diggins slyly stepped through and attempted a difficult low-percentage layup. She missed.
"We were chasing," Diggins said of Tuesday's title game. "Chasing and chasing. I think we spent a lot of our energy chasing. That's all we did."
Diggins finished the game 7-for-17 from the floor. She managed two lofted 3-pointers, one from "Oh, wow" territory. Every other basket she scored was earned after running off multiple screens, Sims shadowing her every cut. Diggins would catch, make a move, make another move and occasionally find a sliver of daylight within Baylor's defense. There were times when Diggins looked dog tired and, by the end, she had very little left to give.
"She's just such a big-time player and she just didn't get a lot of help today," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "But she did everything I thought she could possibly do."
With 7:38 left, Sims took the ball out of bounds underneath Baylor's basket. The referee handed Sims the ball after the second buzzer announcing the end of the media timeout. In front of Sims, the Lady Bears were spreading the court thin. One player was standing in the right corner, one in the left, and Griner was stacked behind Terran Condrey around the midpost.
Earlier in the game, Baylor had run the same exact out-of-bounds play. They'd lofted the pass to Griner, who'd caught it easily and then scored a second later. After this earlier play, Notre Dame assistant coach Jonathan Tsipis exploded from the bench, frustrated that his team wasn't aware of the play's design. So with 7:38 remaining, the Irish were determined to avoid the same result. Sims lofted the pass to Griner and three Notre Dame players bellied up to the center. Sims stepped in bounds, untouched, and collected the quick return pass. She laid the ball in, no defender within arm's length.
"They've got multiple players that can score 20," Diggins said. "Every player knows their role and they play that role to a T. And they showed they're the best team in the country."
Sims, whose easy bucket put Baylor ahead 66-50, was given just a little bit more breathing room than Diggins because of Griner's greatness. And, as Sims tends to do, she pushed through the sliver of daylight Notre Dame offered, grabbed the reins and led Baylor home.
Brittney Griner may be the Baylor train's engine but Odyssey Sims is the conductor. She is the one in front of Baylor's train, meeting the opponent head on. And on Tuesday, Sims was the one standing face-to-face with, essentially, the only player who could have beaten Baylor: Notre Dame's All-America point guard Skylar Diggins.