Ugly stain gets erased: Baylor finishes in front
Two years after a university scandal, the Bears won the women's NCAA championship.
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The Baylor Lady Bears simply wanted to be a shining light for a university that needed something to applaud.
One dazzling national championship ought to do.
Sophia Young's 26 points, Emily Niemann's precise 3-point shooting and the brilliant, energetic play of Baylor's backcourt carried Baylor to an 84-62 victory over Michigan State on Tuesday night for the school's first NCAA title by a women's team.
And what a title run it was.
Five years after coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson took over a team that went 7-20 and was at the bottom of the Big 12, the Lady Bears now sit at the top of their sport after winning a game between two teams playing in the finals for the first time.
"What a team I get to coach!" Mulkey-Robertson said. "It wasn't the coaching, it's these guys taking me for a tremendous ride."
It was the second-largest margin of victory in a championship game, falling one point short of the record set in 1987 when Tennessee beat Louisiana Tech 67-44.
When the horn sounded, the Lady Bears flopped on the floor in delirious celebration as a rainbow of neon-colored confetti sprayed all around the RCA Dome. They jumped in unison, donned championship caps and fans chanted "Mul-key! Mul-key!" while the players swarmed their elated coach.
They won with unforgiving defense that disrupted almost everything Michigan State tried, and by poking enough holes in the Spartans' matchup zone to stay comfortably ahead after zooming to a 19-point lead in the first half.
Niemann keyed the early surge and finished the first half with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from behind the 3-point line; she finished with 19.
"I think [Niemann] was the whole key to this game," Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "If you take 51 off the floor, it was a different game. She was definitely the X-factor."
Not that the Lady Bears were resting easy after that. Knowing that Michigan State had rallied from 16 down to beat Tennessee two nights before, Baylor kept attacking, making steals and scrambling for loose balls.
Their aggressiveness was a perfect reflection of their feisty coach, who practically glowed in a bold aqua-blue pant suit as she stormed back and forth in front of the bench, calling plays, pleading for calls from the officials and cajoling her players to keep pressing -- even with a 20-point lead.
Young was unstoppable in the second half, scoring 18 points. The junior, who came to the United States from the West Indies at age 15 and had never played basketball before that, was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four.
"Well, all those moments all just paid off right now," Young said. "This is what I came here for and I'm living my dream."
Young went 10-for-19 from the field, grabbed nine rebounds and had four assists. Steffanie Blackmon scored 14 points in the second half and finished with 22.
The victory completed an unprecedented double for Mulkey-Robertson, who became the first in the women's game to play for a national championship team and then coach one.
She was the starting point guard when Louisiana Tech won the first NCAA title in 1982, and later became an assistant coach at Tech, spending 15 years there before taking the Baylor job in 2000.
The Lady Bears (33-3) finished the season with 20 straight victories and helped erase an ugly stain on the university, which was rocked two years ago by a scandal in the men's basketball program that was uncovered after a former player was accused of killing a teammate.
"Look up at these fans," Mulkey-Robertson said. "That's how we changed the Waco community. We're a positive in Waco and at Baylor University. There's a lot of good there, there's great programs, great coaches, and this is one of many more to come."
Michigan State (33-4) had reached the title game with unselfish play that epitomized team basketball. But guards Kristin Haynie and Lindsay Bowen had to do it almost by themselves in this one -- and that was asking too much.
Bowen scored 20 points and Haynie 17, but Baylor negated Michigan State's two powerful inside players. Kelli Roehrig scored only 8 points and Liz Shimek had 7. Baylor also owned the boards, outrebounding Michigan State 45-22.
Baylor led by 12 at halftime after blunting a mini-rally by the Spartans at the end of the half. Michigan State hung around for a while early in the second half, giving the Spartan fans -- who included men's coach Tom Izzo and football coach John L. Smith -- hope that another big comeback was possible.
Not this time.
Baylor kept getting the ball to Young and Blackmon for baskets, while guards Chameka Scott and Latoya Wyatt kept harassing Haynie and Bowen. With under 7 minutes to play, the lead had grown to 22. Even the Spartans had to feel they were finished by then.
When it was over, McCallie, who engineered a five-year turnaround of her own, managed a bright smile as she shook hands with Mulkey-Robertson, knowing the Spartans had lost to a superior team.
"They're hurting a lot right now, as we all are because the season's over, and it's just a funny feeling to have it be over," McCallie said. "But in the long run, they're going to look back and realize that they were part of the greatest team ever at Michigan State and one of the greatest teams ever."
Wyatt, a reserve who played only two minutes in Baylor's semifinal win over LSU, also contributed eight points and six rebounds. Scott added seven points, four rebounds and three assists.
Baylor frustrated the normally efficient Spartans at every turn for most of the first half with its sticky man-to-man defense. The Lady Bears tipped passes, contested shots and often had Michigan State desperately seeking a good look at the basket with the shot clock winding down.
Rebounds? Baylor grabbed almost every one, from their post players to their blinding-fast guards. With 7:37 left in the half, Baylor owned a 16-5 edge on the boards. It was 21-10 at halftime.
With Michigan State going scoreless for nearly five minutes, Baylor ran off eight straight points to open a 20-8 lead. Two straight buckets by Blackmon and a Niemann 3 made it 29-12, and Niemann's fourth 3-pointer took the lead to 32-13 -- and there were still more than three minutes left in the half.
Then the Spartans started looking like the team that had won so many games with its offensive execution. Three driving shots by Haynie and two high-arcing 3s by Bowen drew Michigan State to 34-25. The momentum was swinging the Spartans' way and then Niemann doused it with an NBA-range 3 from the left side with eight seconds remaining to take the lead back to 12.
It was more of the same after that. Baylor never stopped until it was time to celebrate.