TAMPA, Fla. -- In another instant classic national championship game, Baylor outlasted Notre Dame 82-81 on Sunday to capture the program's third NCAA title. Notre Dame senior Arike Ogunbowale, the championship hero a year ago in the Final Four, had a chance to tie the score with 1.9 seconds left, but she missed the first of two free throws, and the Lady Bears were able to run out the clock.
Baylor won despite squandering a 17-point first-half lead and survived a knee injury to All-American forward Lauren Cox in the third quarter. Chloe Jackson led the Lady Bears with 26 points and broke an 80-80 tie with a driving right-handed layup with five seconds left.
Here's how Baylor won it.
Cox injury completely changes the game -- but Baylor survives
Baylor jumped in front early and was in complete control until the 1:22 mark of the third quarter and the Lady Bears up 62-50. That's when Notre Dame's Brianna Turner inadvertently stepped on Cox's foot under the basket. Cox, a 6-foot-4 junior, went down immediately clutching her left knee, and she left the court shortly after in a wheel chair.
Over the next 6:17, the Fighting Irish outscored Baylor 24-12 to tie the score at 74 with 5:16 left in the game. Cox had eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks before the injury. Baylor had scored 25 points on 11 of 14 field goal attempts when Cox got a touch at the free throw line, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
But Cox's absence changed the way Baylor ran its offense and had the most impact on the defensive end, where the Irish repeatedly attacked freshman NaLyssa Smith, who replaced Cox in the lineup. The score was tied four times and the lead changed hands twice after the Irish tied it on a Marina Mabrey 3-pointer, her third of the fourth quarter.
Jackson becomes the X factor
Jackson, playing in her final game in her only season in Waco after transferring from LSU, was named the Final Four's most outstanding player, scoring 26 points to go with five assists and playing all 40 minutes. No shot was bigger than her layup on Baylor's final possession. She took the ball at the top of the key and used a screen from DiDi Richards to beat Jackie Young. Then Jackson accelerated as she got in the lane to beat Turner, Notre Dame's all-time leading shot-blocker.
It was the identical play that the Lady Bears used for the deciding basket against Oregon in the semifinals -- only on Friday, Cox set the screen.
Ogunbowale comes up just short this time
Trailing by two points, Notre Dame got the ball into the hands of the player it wanted in the final seconds. Following the basket by Jackson and an Irish timeout, Ogunbowale -- who made game-winning shots against UConn and Mississippi State last year in the Final Four -- caught an inbounds pass from Young in the left corner and got fouled by Kalani Brown with 1.9 seconds left. But the usually clutch Ogunbowale came up short. Her first free throw bounced on the rim three times and fell off. She made the second, leaving the Irish with a one-point deficit. With fouls to give, Notre Dame was unable to put Baylor on the free throw line. After two inbounds plays, the Lady Bears had their championship.
Ogunbowale, who missed her first four shots of the game, was a big reason Notre Dame was able to get back into the game. She finished with a game-high 31 points on 11-for-27 shooting from the field, scoring 17 in the second half. She and Mabrey combined for five second-half 3-pointers and shot 7 for 13 treys in the game.
Ogunbowale kept Notre Dame in the game in the first half too. With 14 points at the break, she was the only Irish player in double figures. The Irish trailed 43-31 at halftime, but they shot just 27.5 percent in the first 20 minutes. It was the best first half for Ogunbowale in the Final Four; she had scored a total of nine points in her previous three Final Four games.
Baylor dominates early
With Cox as the centerpiece on defense and facilitating on offense, and with Jackson's prolific scoring, the Lady Bears dominated the first quarter, leading 25-14. They shot 12-of-18 to start the game and even made a 3-pointer, something they didn't do at all against Oregon in the semifinals.
At the other end, Baylor's defense had Notre Dame completely out of rhythm. The Irish missed 14 of their first 15 shots and were just 5-of-24 in the opening quarter. Cox twice blocked shots by Turner. Even when Brown had to leave the game briefly with cramps, Smith replaced her and immediately scored a pair of baskets. Everything was going Baylor's way at that point.
Baylor takes away Notre Dame's strengths
Given that Baylor was actually the better team at what Notre Dame usually does best, it's a credit to the Irish for even getting back in the game. That also shows just how important Cox is to the Lady Bears. Notre Dame entered the game tops in the country in both points in the paint and transition points. Baylor finished the game outscoring the Irish 54-24 in the paint, holding Notre Dame to half its season average (50.3 PPG).
Brown was the most dominant inside player all night, with 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting and 13 rebounds.
Smith also had 14 points for Baylor, mostly around the basket. The freshman hit two big, 15-foot jump shots in the fourth quarter.
With Baylor shooting such a high percentage from the field (53 percent for the game), Notre Dame couldn't get the ball out and run as it likes. The Irish, who averaged 25.7 transition points per game, had just eight in the title game. Baylor had 16.
Notre Dame's seniors say goodbye
All four Notre Dame senior starters scored in double figures.
Ogunbowale's 31 led the way, but Mabrey had her best game of the tournament with 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting (4-of-8 on 3-pointers). Turner had 12 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, but she and Jessica Shepard struggled all night with the superior Baylor size, shooting a combined 8-of-21. Shepard finished with just 11 points.
Ogunbowale's 31 points were second most in the national championship game and the most in a losing effort. And her 155 points in this NCAA tournament are the most by a player on a team that did not win the national title (fourth overall).