Notre Dame-Baylor final features talent in post

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. — Awaiting Notre Dame in a game as big as it gets will be an opponent that looks as big as it gets.

The No. 1-ranked Baylor Bears bring a potent 1-2 post punch of 6-foot-7 senior Kalani Brown and 6-4 junior Lauren Cox into Sunday evening’s NCAA women’s basketball championship at Amalie Arena, intent on denying the Irish their first-ever back-to-back titles.

Baylor also boasts a couple other double-digit scorers in upperclassmen Chloe Jackson and Juicy Landrum, an aptly named defensive stopper on the perimeter in DiDi Richards, and a bench full of eager backups, primarily shaped from the nation’s top-rated freshman class.

But it starts with Brown and Cox.

“This is the first time we’ve played a team that has two outstanding post players,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday afternoon of the Bears.

“We’ve generally thought we had an abnormal advantage in the post,” McGraw said. “That would be our (usual) game plan, to go inside. We do not feel that way. They have terrific players inside with Lauren Cox and Kalani.”

Brown is averaging 15.7 points and 8.1 rebounds to go with 61 percent shooting from the field and 78 percent at the line. The similarly efficient Cox adds 13.2 points and 8.4 rebounds. She’s at 56 percent on 2-pointers and 73 percent from the stripe.

At the other end of the court, the duo has combined to average 4.2 blocks, pacing Baylor to a nation-topping 7.2 and forming “an intimidating presence inside,” according to McGraw.

“Lauren’s kind of similar to Jess,” McGraw assessed in reference to 6-4 Jessica Shepard, half of ND’s own inside pair of stars, alongside fellow senior Brianna Turner. “(Cox is) a great facilitator at the high post, can make the high-post jumper, shoot 3s.”

“They’re both obviously really great post players,” Shepard said Saturday of Brown and Cox. “That’s why their team’s still playing right now. They’re well-coached and it’s definitely going to be important that we come in and be ready to play 40 minutes.”

Shepard played exactly that many in ND’s 81-76 roller-coaster semifinal win over Connecticut on Friday, and dazzled along the way with 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.

Turner added 15 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.

“I’m excited for the challenge,” the 6-3 Turner said of potentially defending the much taller, thicker Brown. “Baylor has always been known for having some really tall and great post players.”

“It’s going to be fun,” Cox said of going against ND’s bigs. “I think anytime you get to play against a good post player and you’re competitive like I am, you just accept the challenge and have fun with it. They move a lot and work well together, like Kalani and I do.”

If the inside effectiveness by the two sets of bigs winds up a wash, it’s the Irish who will have at least a perceived edge against the Bears given their ultra-decorated, ultra-seasoned trio of Arike Ogunbowale (21.5 points per game), Jackie Young (15.0) and Marina Mabrey (14.4).

“They’re defending national champions,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of a Notre Dame team that returned four starters from last year’s title squad, then picked up an All-American for its fifth in Turner, back from a knee injury. “They have (five) averaging in double figures. They have bigs inside. They shoot the 3 ball, not like Oregon (Baylor’s semifinal opponent), but they shoot the 3 ball. They’re athletic.”

No. 3 Notre Dame (35-3) is also a group that leads the nation in scoring (88.8 points per game), leads in getting to the line, leads in made free throws and is second in field goal percentage at 51.2.

The Bears (36-1) won’t be daunted, though. They lead the nation in field goal percentage defense at 31.6, lead in rebounding margin at 17.6 and lead in assists at 22.4.

They’re paced in that category by Jackson at 5.4 per game to go with her 11.3 scoring clip. Landrum (11.2 points) is Baylor’s lone regular 3-point launcher, but she’s hit 61-of-154 for 40 percent.

The Bears roar into the championship with 28 straight wins since their defeat, 68-63 at Stanford. Baylor also beat UConn this season, 68-57, and has one other common opponent with the Irish, having downed Iowa 85-53 a week ago in the Greensboro Regional final.

Notre Dame beat the Hawkeyes 105-71 early in the regular season, split its two games with UConn and topped Stanford 84-68 in the Chicago Regional final.

Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner defends Connecticut’s Napheesa Collier (24) during Friday night’s Final Four semifinal inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. The Irish bigs will be challenged Sunday in the final by Baylor’s bigger bigs.
Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard looks to pass as Connecticut's Olivia Nelson-Ododa, left, and Christyn Williams (13) defend during Friday's NCAA Final Four semifinal inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Shepard played all 40 minutes in Notre Dame's 81-76 win.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHAT: NCAA Tournament championship

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (35-3) vs. No. 1 Baylor (36-1).

WHERE: Amalie Arena (20,500), Tampa, Fla.

WHEN: Sunday, 6 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1/96.9/ 92.1 FM).

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: A Notre Dame win in Sunday’s national championship would also be the program’s 1,000th victory all-time. A year ago in the title game, coach Muffet McGraw earned her 800th win with the Irish. … Baylor coach Kim Mulkey prevailed in each of her first four career meetings against McGraw, capped by an 80-61 victory in the 2012 title game, before McGraw took regional final matchups in 2014 and 2015 to close the gap to 4-2. … Each coach is seeking her third national title (McGraw also won in 2001, Mulkey in 2005). The winner will join Geno Auriemma (11) and Pat Summitt (eight) as the only coaches in NCAA Division I women’s history with more than two championships. … Notre Dame is trying to become just the fourth program to win back-to-back crowns, joining USC, Tennessee and Connecticut. … Mulkey is 575-99 (.853) in 19 seasons, all at Baylor, to rank third all-time in winning percentage behind Auriemma (.885) and Leon Barmore (.869), whom she assisted at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech. She was also the point guard when Tech won the first-ever women’s NCAA title in 1982.

QUOTING: “I think the journey this year has been difficult for different reasons than it was last year. I think the expectation (to win the title) always weighs a little heavier on you. I don’t think it weighed quite as heavy on the players as it did on the staff, because we kept thinking, ‘We’re supposed to win, be here.’ I think after we beat Stanford, it was a big feeling of relief more than excitement. After last night’s win (against Connecticut), I think the excitement is definitely back. ”

— Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach