INDIANAPOLIS - For those who knock the predictability of women's college basketball, who say that all you need to win a pool is to figure out whether Tennessee or Connecticut will win the championship, tonight's title game is a foray into the Great Unknown.
For the first time in five years, and for only the third time in the past 10 seasons, neither the Lady Vols nor the Huskies will be present when the trophy is awarded.
Instead, Baylor or Michigan State will capture its first national title tonight before more than 28,000, and players and coaches from both teams spent time yesterday reassuring women's basketball fans that it's OK to have a championship without Connecticut or Tennessee, that a little change, now and then, is good for the sport.
"It just shows that there are other teams in the country that can win a national title than the UConns and the Tennessees," said Baylor junior forward Sophia Young. "We are trying to establish a legacy for Baylor. Hopefully Baylor will be in the Final Four many more times. Us being here shows kids that they don't have to go to Tennessee to be in the national championship game."
The Lady Bears (32-3) and the Spartans (33-3) have rags-to-riches stories that punctuate their run to the championship. Before Baylor won the Tempe Regional and Michigan State captured the Kansas City Regional, neither school had ever gotten past the regional semifinals, much less played for a championship.
Both teams are led by dynamic, young coaches who are relative newcomers to the big stage as head coaches.
Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie, 38, in her fifth season at East Lansing after eight years at Maine, suffered through a 10-18 record in her first MSU season, then built the team into a power that won a share of the Big Ten regular-season race and won the tournament title this season.
"I haven't really made that bridge yet [between the losing and the winning]," said Michigan State senior center Kelli Roehrig. "That's pretty cool, eh? It's all hard work that we've put in every single summer. It's been a lot of tears, sweat, blood. It's been everything. That first year was kind of a regrouping year for Coach P, of getting the program where she wanted it and getting everybody on the same page. We're finally there."
Led by Roehrig in the middle, flanked by junior forward Liz Shimek, the team's leading scorer, and a solid if not flashy backcourt of junior Lindsay Bowen and senior Kristin Haynie, the Spartans have won 17 straight.
None of their wins was as compelling as Sunday's 68-64 victory over Tennessee, in which the Spartans trailed the heavily favored Lady Vols by 16 with 14:30 to go and by six with 3:45 remaining.
"That's the tournament," McCallie said. "But I just think that the more you go after it, the more great teams you play, the more comfortable you are in any environment. And this game is about really our team. Playing 40 minutes and doing what we want to do and that's really what it's about for us."
Baylor's turnaround is slightly more dramatic. Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson, 42, a former Louisiana Tech point guard who won two national championships as a player and one as an assistant, inherited a team that had gone 7-20 the season before she arrived in 2000-01 and quickly turned it around.
This season's team features the nation's best frontcourt tandem, senior forward Steffanie Blackmon and Young, a native of St. Vincent in the West Indies who was named to the Kodak All-America team.
The Lady Bears, who won the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles this season, also had never gone past the Sweet 16 before this year.
And, like Michigan State, Baylor had to overcome a big deficit (15 points) against a Southeastern Conference power, LSU, in Sunday's national semifinals to get here.
And, in another similarity, both teams have a Tennessee encounter that defines them. While the Spartans made their big comeback against the Lady Vols, the Lady Bears have a painful memory that forged their season.
In last year's Midwest Regional semifinal with the score tied at 69, Baylor's Jessika Stratton was whistled for what appeared to be a phantom foul on Tennessee's Tasha Butts with two-tenths of a second left. Butts made both free throws, and the Lady Bears had a rallying cry for this year: "Finish the Job."
"A pain that heavy and that deep, there's nothing that anybody can say to get you through that," said Baylor senior guard Chelsea Whitaker. "All of us had to deal with it in our own personal ways. It was really a positive situation in my opinion, because it showed us that we could compete with anybody in the country. That maturity that we gained from that one game has helped us through buzzer-beaters and close games that we've had all year this year. It was a positive thing, and it helped us to be the team that we are today."
That team, like Michigan State, is one that nobody knows, but by day's end, it could be a national champion.