By Associated Press
DENVER – Brittney Griner’s place in women’s basketball history is secure.
Blocking layups, snagging rebounds, hitting shots over two and three helpless defenders, she towered over the competition all season long to earn player of the year and outstanding player of the NCAA tournament honors.
She was simply dominant in adding national champion to her resume on April 3.
Griner had 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks to lead Baylor to an 80-61 victory over Notre Dame in the NCAA women’s basketball championship, capping an unparalleled 40-0 season for the Lady Bears.
“Brittney Griner, whether she won today or not, will go down in the history of the women’s game as, if not the greatest post player, one of the greatest,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I’m so glad she has that ring now.”
When the buzzer sounded, Griner finally celebrated, hamming it up as she helped take down the nets and dancing with Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
“It meant everything for us to get it for coach,” said Griner, referring to Mulkey’s struggle with Bell’s palsy during the tournament. “She felt like she wasn’t there for us, but we told her every second that we could hear her loud and clear, everything she was saying.”
Baylor became the seventh women’s team to run through a season unbeaten and the first in NCAA history to win 40 games. It was the second national championship for Baylor, which also won a title in 2005.
Baylor did it in a nearly wire-to-wire victory, finishing with a flourish when anything less than bringing a title back to Waco would have been a huge disappointment.
The 6-foot-8 Griner was right at the center of the action as the Lady Bears took control. Every time Notre Dame made a run in the second half to cut into the deficit, Griner had an answer. She showed a wide array of post moves, hitting turnaround jumpers and hooks that the Irish had no way to stop – even when they collapsed around her.
“Brittney Griner comes to work every day,” Mulkey said. “A lot of great players think they’re all that and they half go through drills and they come to practice and they dog it. That child comes to work and brings her work pail every day.”
Notre Dame fell short in the title game for the second straight season, having lost to Texas A&M by six points last year.
Coach Muffet McGraw’s senior-heavy crew did finish the season with a decided edge over rival Connecticut – the Irish won the Big East regular-season title and defeated the Huskies in three of four meetings, including the national semifinal.
But like every other team this year, Notre Dame couldn’t solve Baylor and its superstar.
Griner, selected The Associated Press player of the year, also was named most outstanding player of the tournament.
All-American point guard Skylar Diggins did all she could to keep the Irish (36-4) in the game, scoring 20 points. But senior Natalie Novosel had just five points, going 0-for-11 from the field. Devereaux Peters, also playing in her final game, was saddled with foul trouble because of Griner. She scored seven points.
Notre Dame had an early 9-8 lead before Baylor took over with a 12-2 spurt. The Irish were down by 14 in the first half before cutting their deficit to 34-28 at the break. They got as close as 42-39 and had the ball, but Griner asserted herself, scoring nine of the next 19 points for Baylor to seal the victory.
Odyssey Sims added 19 points and Destiny Williams had 12 for the Lady Bears, who out-rebounded Notre Dame 46-27 and now have the third unbeaten season in women’s basketball in the last four years. UConn, which has gone undefeated four times, did it in 2009 and 2010. Texas and Tennessee also have unbeaten seasons.
With 1:04 left and the game well in hand, Mulkey took out Griner and the two shared a long hug. The fiery coach then went down the bench and hugged each of her players while holding back tears.