The 2019 NCAA season comes to a close.
TAMPA — The consensus two best teams in America squared off for the national title before a sellout crowd, and the level of play reflected it, and it came down to a Chloe Jackson jumper, Baylor winning, 82-81.
So how did it happen? Here are the biggest takeaways from the final game of the women’s college basketball season.
Baylor’s fast start
Already up 6-3, Baylor’s Juicy Landrum stopped outside the three-point line in transition and did the unthinkable: she made a three.
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- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, March 26: Louisville and Texas A&M survive and advance
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, March 23: Highlights from the first round of the NCAA Tournament
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, March 16: Tournament bracket released
To be fair, it wasn’t Baylor’s first three — in fact, Baylor is shot 37.5 percent from deep this year entering the game. But they shot the fewest threes in Division I, and with just three attempts and zero makes against Oregon in the national semifinals, it felt like a new wrinkle. (Another three late in the third put Baylor up, 60-46.)
And so it went throughout the first quarter, Baylor having an answer for everything Notre Dame threw at them, harassing perimeter shooters, keeping Notre Dame off the offensive glass, and finishing at the other end. Baylor shot 66.7 percent from the field in the first, and the final play of thw quarter encapsulated it all: Arike Ogunbowale had the ball and a final shot, only to be stripped by Chloe Jackson, who raced the other way and finished at the rim over Marina Mabrey. Going down 11 after a quarter is inadvisable in general. Against Baylor, it is usually fatal.
By halftime, the lead was 12, and most of it came from how often Baylor, not Notre Dame, could get going downhill: a 14-2 edge in fast break points. It was a remarkable turnaround from what even the Irish expected, with Muffet McGraw saying prior to the game that she though a key to winning would be to run more.
Nalyssa Smith is the future
Look, the duo of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox can and should be feted for the season they’ve had with Baylor. But Kim Mulkey had the option this season of using Smith, a highly-regarded freshman, 6’2 with great leaping ability, to supersize her lineup.
Nor did they miss a beat when Brown needed to exit with a cramp, the Bears already up, 11-3. Smith scored twice around the rim, Baylor simply running for her what they’d been running for Brown. By the time Brown returned, the lead was up to 17-7.
Next year, the Brown-Cox partnership gives way to Cox-Smith, though see below for reasons to worry about Cox. Once she returns, don’t expect it to turn out much better for opponents.
A Marina Mabrey rally
It’s been a rough period for Marina Mabrey from deep lately. Her 3-for-10 against Oregon represented something of a rally — she’d been 2-for-15 from beyond the arc prior to that. She hit her first three Sunday night, but missed her next two, while committing two fouls, very uncharacteristic of her.
But her energy and basketball savvy led to a third-quarter rally. She forsook the three for stepping inside the line, a drive to the rim, a midrange jumper. She swiped the ball out of Chloe Jackson’s hands.
She did the same thing to start the fourth quarter, Notre Dame down 66-55, drawing the fourth foul on Chloe Jackson with a veteran move, pump fake to get three free throws. It rallied her teammates. A three-point play followed from Ogunbowale and Jessica Shepard followed with a layup and drew a foul to get Notre Dame within three, 66-63. Then came another three from Mabrey, and another, and suddenly her teammates had her emotion running through them, and the game was tied, 77-all.
She sparked her team as she has so often in her four years in South Bend. She’s been the Jersey in Notre Dame’s remarkable run, and that remained true right through her final game.
Lauren Cox’s injury
Up 62-48, Baylor was defending when Lauren Cox came down, tangled under Brown’s foot and immediately crumpled to the ground in pain. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Kim Mulkey said as she walked across the floor over to Cox, who left the court via a wheelchair, crying.
While she’d already had an impact on this game, eight points and eight rebounds, enough to help Baylor to a double-digit lead, it means more than just a recovery time now, depending on how severe the injury is, it could change Baylor’s outlook fundamentally next season as well, not to mention scramble preliminary 2020 WNBA draft boards, a league built for players like Lauren Cox on the rare occasion they come along.
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