Baylor center Brittney Griner puts up a shot against the Notre Dame defense in the first half of Tuesday’s women’s NCAA National Championship game. Griner scored 26 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to help Baylor beat the Lady Irish and complete the first 40-0 season in college basketball history.
DENVER — 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 (35-4) let a late lead slip away in a 76-70 loss to Texas A&M in the title game, so they used the mantra “unfinished business” all season.
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.
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.
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.
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 hung tough for 25 minutes even as Griner was getting her buckets, boards and blocks in bunches. They 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.
Baylor, the first team ever to go 40-0, closed with a spectacular 38-22 run.
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.
Instead, Notre Dame became the third team to lose in back-to-back championship games, joining Tennessee (2003 and ‘04) and Auburn, which dropped three straight from 1988-90.
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.
Notre Dame has a history of pulling off monumental upsets. The men’s basketball team ended UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak and the football team stopped Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak.
Coach Muffet 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 worked to perfection at the start as Notre Dame led 9-8 in the opening minutes.
After the Lady Bears pulled ahead 29-15, the Irish closed the first half on a 13-5 run to pull to 34-28 at halftime.
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.”
But she watched somebody else cut down the nets again as the Irish settled for second-best once more.