It's all Baylor in women's title game

Inside-outside attack wraps up Mich. State for first crown, 84-62

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament

April 06, 2005|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - You can only endure so much heartache before you start to wonder whether the breaks will go your way.

It's been that way for the city of Waco, Texas, and Baylor University for quite a while, going back to the storming by federal agents of a cult in a town near the city in the early 1990s and the murder of a men's basketball player two years ago, with one of his former teammates charged with the crime.

So, when the Lady Bears basketball team claimed the national championship last night, with a brilliant 84-62 win over Michigan State, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson's tears, which started before the final horn sounded, may have been more about bringing joy to a besieged community than merely winning a championship.

"I'm so happy for Baylor University. I cannot say it enough," she said.

The team's performance, a dazzling combination of inside power and exceptional outside shooting, certainly gave the school and the town something to smile about.

The Lady Bears (33-3) capped a 20-game win streak with as dominant a performance in the Final Four as has been seen in recent years. Indeed, the 22-point victory margin was the second-largest in NCAA women's Final Four history, falling just one point short of the 23-point win Tennessee scored over Louisiana Tech in the 1987 final.

Baylor reserve sophomore forward Emily Niemann hit five first-half three-pointers to loosen Michigan State's matchup zone, before the inside combo of junior Sophia Young and senior Steffanie Blackmon torched the Spartans inside.

Young and Blackmon combined for 48 points and 16 rebounds, as Young, a Kodak All-American, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

"One thing we tried to do is make sure, on the defensive end, that it was one and done so they didn't get second-chance points," said Blackmon. "So, I just tried to crash hard."

"They were just great together," said Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie. "The interesting thing about them is that they don't have to use the low post. They can, what I call free flow. They can go anywhere. I caught myself watching them on occasion and I said I better stop that and get back to coaching."

The win, the first national title for Baylor in any major sport as well as the first basketball championship for any Big 12 school, in men's or women's basketball, also made history for Mulkey-Robertson.

She became the first woman to coach a national championship team after winning a title as a player in NCAA history, as Mulkey-Robertson won a championship as a point guard at Louisiana Tech in the first NCAA Final Four in 1982.

The Lady Bears' rise to the top of women's basketball has been nothing short of meteoric, as Baylor was 7-21 five years ago, the year before Mulkey-Robertson took over.

Baylor, seeded second in the Tempe Region, became the first women's team to beat three top seeds, first North Carolina in the regional final, then Louisiana State in the national semifinal, before conquering Michigan State last night.

The Spartans (33-4), who tied a tournament record in Sunday's semifinal by erasing a 16-point deficit against Tennessee, never got within nine of the Lady Bears in the second half, as Baylor shut down the Spartans' interior game of forward Liz Shimek and center Kelli Roehrig, holding them to just 15 combined points and eight rebounds.

Trailing by 12 at the half, the Spartans, who saw their 17-game win streak snapped, traded baskets early in the second half, but never could put a sizable dent in Baylor's margin.

McCallie called the Spartans' 10-rebound deficit to Tennessee in Sunday's 68-64 comeback win "horrendous." Her words for last night's gap to the Lady Bears couldn't have been much better, as Baylor pounded the Spartans on the boards, out-rebounding them 45-22, including 18-3 on the offensive glass, thus extending possessions and mounting a 17-0 advantage in second-chance points.

"Rebounding was outstanding for us," said Mulkey-Robertson. "That's the most we have out-rebounded anybody all year. I told the team before the game, during halftime and throughout the course of the playoffs, your defense will win you a national championship. And it was pretty special again [last night]."

The Baylor team adopted a slogan, "Finish The Job," in the offseason, referring to its elimination from last year's tournament when a phantom foul was called on Jessika Stratton with 0.2 of a second left in the Midwest Regional semifinal against Tennessee.

The Lady Bears lost then on two free throws from Tennessee's Tasha Butts, and the memory of that slight, and all the other insults to their school and their city burned in their minds throughout the season. For now, the women's basketball team has done what it can to restore a bit of hope and honor to Baylor and to Waco.

"I'm not sure what people say about Baylor and I really don't give a rip what they say," said Mulkey-Robertson. "We're national champions today. They probably said we didn't belong in the Big 12. My guess is they're rethinking that, aren't they?"

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