- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
DENVER -- This journey of perfection started in earnest in March 2011 when a furious and frustrated Baylor women's basketball team made the bus ride home from its Elite Eight loss in Dallas.
"It was horrible," Baylor star center Brittney Griner said. "But now, this plane ride back tomorrow? It's going to be jumping. They're going to have to tell us to sit down in our seats."
When eventual champion Texas A&M defeated Baylor last year, it stung the Lady Bears like a nest of hornets. Just one thing could make it better: an NCAA title this season. On Tuesday, Baylor earned that emphatically, beating Notre Dame 80-61 in the final behind 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks from Griner, the Final Four's most outstanding player.
In a Women's Final Four that featured all No. 1 seeds, there was really only one No. 1.
And it looks like 40-0 is the new 39-0. Baylor became the seventh women's team in the NCAA era -- which began in 1981-82 -- to finish a season undefeated. The previous best record for any of those perfect teams was 39-0, achieved by Tennessee (1998) and Connecticut (2002, '09 and '10). The other perfect teams in NCAA history were UConn in 1995 (35-0) and Texas in 1986 (34-0).
It is Baylor's second national championship, making Mulkey just the fifth coach to win more than one NCAA women's title. The Lady Bears got their first in 2005.
"I thought the '05 team, we just came in the back door," Mulkey said. "We didn't have any expectations placed on us. So we were the underdog.
"The difference in that team and this team is that we didn't come in the back door. From day one, the expectations were placed on us. We embraced it, and we lived up to it."
That attitude actually went away from Mulkey's normal instinct, she said, to protect her team from acknowledging outside expectations.
"We couldn't do that this year. You can't hide the talent in that locker room that I get to coach," she said. "They sense 'Coach is always brutally honest with us.' I couldn't hoodwink them and tell them, 'We don't have those expectations, you're not that good, you're one of many.' Because, truthfully, they're pretty special."
So where does Baylor rank among the best teams in women's basketball history? That's always easier to do when more time passes for perspective. Considering the continuing success of the key members of UConn's 2001-02 squad -- Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash from that team are still pro stars and headed to the 2012 Olympics -- it's hard to pick against those Huskies as the very best.
But Baylor put its own stamp on the club of perfection when you consider that this program never finished higher than tied for fourth in its own league -- first the Southwest Conference and then the Big 12 -- and didn't get to the NCAA tournament until Mulkey took over in 2000-01.
The last year all the No. 1 seeds were present at the Women's Final Four, 1989, Baylor finished the season 3-23. Baylor simply wasn't relevant in this sport. At the time, Mulkey was an assistant at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech, and her move to Baylor couldn't have seemed more unlikely.
But when Mulkey and Louisiana Tech couldn't agree on the length of her contract to take over as head coach when Leon Barmore retired in 2000, she instead went to Waco and changed the landscape of women's hoops.
"I was never leaving Louisiana; I'm a Louisiana girl," Mulkey said. "And I was basically pushed out the door because of principle. I think there's an old country song that says 'You gotta stand for something or you'll fall for anything.' And I just believed I was worthy of a five-year contract.
"Years later I look back and thank God for unanswered prayers because I would have never left there. And I wouldn't have brought such joy and excitement to central Texas, to Baylor University."
Indeed, Baylor folks would love to give her a lifetime contract now. And the title game was just the way Baylor wanted it: anticlimactic. This Final Four had one thrilling game: Notre Dame's overtime victory against UConn in the semifinals. Meanwhile, Baylor ground it out against Stanford on Sunday, then pounded away until the Irish were flattened Tuesday.
Along with Griner on the All-Final Four team were teammates Destiny Williams, who had 12 points and six rebounds Tuesday, and Odyssey Sims, who had 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Williams, who said she has dreamed of a championship, grinned and said, "The trophy is kind of heavy. It's heavier than my dream, but I like it."
There were some neat historical connections to be made. With 2012 being the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Baylor became the first NCAA basketball team to win 40 games.
And Baylor reserve guard Makenzie Robertson wore her hair in French braids, just like her mom, Mulkey, wore while winning the 1982 NCAA title game. Thirty years later, mother and daughter celebrated a national championship together.
"I wear the braids for a couple of reasons, actually," Robertson said. "One, I've worn them for every championship-type game we've had this year, like in the Big 12. Also, Trace Adkins is here, and last game he came to I didn't wear them and he told me I was losing points in his book. So I said, 'I've got to make sure I wear them.'
"But most important, I wanted to pay tribute and show how I felt toward my mom and that I want to reflect her out there."
The Lady Bears as a team did that, too, and that's a big part of what drew in so many fans -- from country singer Adkins, a former Louisiana Tech football player who was a contemporary of Mulkey's, to Baylor's current football legend, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
"Those guys are fine men, and they made the time and effort to come watch women play," Mulkey said. "That sends a message to me: that they understand the importance, and they value a product. It doesn't matter if you're a male or a female, they want to see excellence."
The Lady Bears showed that throughout this season, winning their games by an average of 26.3 points and holding opponents to 31.0 percent shooting from the field.
With the quickness on the perimeter and Griner inside, attacking Baylor's defense is like swimming through an alligator-filled moat only to encounter a high stone wall. The fortress (basket) is very well-protected.
And it won't get easier to face Baylor any time soon. The Lady Bears bring back their entire starting five, giving them a chance to repeat UConn's feat of back-to-back perfect seasons. But neither Griner nor Mulkey wants to think about all that just yet.
"I'm going to let it sink in a long time, so don't call me for an interview," Mulkey joked of savoring this title. "They tell me Bell's palsy will go away when you rest. And I need to rest."
There's time to do that now for an admittedly tired coach who has been battling that ailment this past week. The "unfinished business" of 2011 -- her team's mantra and motivation -- is no more.
"Unfinished is finished now," Williams said. "You just feel relieved. Your body tells you, 'OK, you've finally done it.'"
17dBonnie D. Ford