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Perfect! Baylor (40-0) beats Notre Dame 80-61 for title

Eric Gay | AP
Eric Gay | AP
Baylor center Brittney Griner cuts the net down after the NCAA women's basketball championship game against Notre Dame in Denver Tuesday night, April 3, 2012. Baylor won the championship 80-61.
By Doug Feinberg, The Associated Press

DENVER — Brittney Griner and Baylor left no doubt they’re head and shoulders above any team in the country. In fact, they’re perfect.

Griner had 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks to lead Baylor to a dominating 80-61 victory over Notre Dame in the NCAA women’s basketball championship on Tuesday night, capping a 40-0 season for the Lady Bears.

They became the seventh women’s team to run through a season unbeaten and the first in NCAA history to win 40 games. It was the second national championship for Baylor, which also won a title in 2005.

Baylor did it in a nearly wire-to-wire victory, finishing a season in which anything less than bringing a title back to Waco would have been a huge disappointment.

And as she so often does, the 6-foot-8 Griner helped the Lady Bears take control. Every time Notre Dame made a run in the second half to cut into the deficit, Griner had an answer. She showed a wide array of post moves hitting turnaround jumpers and hooks that the Irish had no way to stop — even when they collapsed around her.

“Brittany Griner comes to work every day,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “A lot of great players think they’re all that and they half go through drills and they come to practice and they dog it. That child comes to work and brings her work pail every day.”

Notre Dame fell short in the title game for the second straight season. The Irish lost to Texas A&M by six points last season. Notre Dame was trying to do something that no other team had done in the NCAA era by knocking off an unbeaten squad in the title game.

Instead, the Irish became the third team to lose in back-to-back championship games, joining Tennessee (2003 and 2004) and Auburn, which dropped three straight (1988, ’89 and ’90).

Coach Muffet McGraw’s senior-heavy crew finished the season having gotten the best of rival Connecticut — the Irish won the Big East regular season title and defeated the Huskies in three-of-four meetings, including the national semifinal.

But like every team this year, Notre Dame couldn’t solve Baylor and the most dominant player in women’s basketball.

Griner, selected The Associated Press player of the year, also was named most outstanding player of the tournament.

“We wouldn’t be here without my team,” the junior said. “All the awards — none of that means anything. If I don’t have my team here, we can’t get this.”

Skylar Diggins did all she could to keep the Irish (36-4) in the game, scoring 20 points. But she got little help. Senior Natalie Novosel had five points, going 0-for-11 from the field. Devereaux Peters, also playing in her final game, was saddled with foul trouble because of Griner. She only had seven points.

Like Griner, Diggins has pledged to return for her senior year — both could join the WNBA — and will try to make a third run at the title.

Notre Dame took an early 9-8 lead before Baylor took over with a 12-2 run. The Irish were down by 14 in the first half before cutting their deficit to 34-28 at the break. They got as close as 42-39 and had the ball, but Griner asserted herself, scoring nine of the next 19 points for Baylor to seal the victory.

Odyssey Sims added 19 points and Destiny Williams had 12 for the Lady Bears, who outrebounded Notre Dame 46-27 and now have the third unbeaten season in women’s basketball in the last four years. UConn, which has gone undefeated four times, did it in back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010. Texas and Tennessee also have unbeaten seasons.

The victory also gave President Barack Obama some bragging rights. He correctly picked Baylor to beat Notre Dame in the title game.

With 1:04 left and the game well in hand, Mulkey took out Griner and the two shared a long hug. Mulkey was able to crack a bright smile despite battling Bell’s palsy.

Mulkey has now won a title as a player (at Louisiana Tech), an Olympic gold medal (in 1984) two titles as a coach. Only five women’s coaches have more than one championship at the top level of NCAA competition.

Mulkey has downplayed the 40 wins, noting that her former coach and mentor at Louisiana Tech Leon Barmore won 40 games in 1980. That was before women’s basketball was governed by the NCAA, which didn’t begin keeping records until the 1982 season.

It was the second meeting between the teams this season. Baylor also won the first one, by 13 in Waco on Nov. 17. That one gave the Lady Bears the preseason WNIT title.

As usual, Griner put on a show in warmups, thrilling the crowd with a series of impressive dunks — including a one-handed throw down, a double-pump slam and another in which she hung on rim. She has already dunked twice in the tournament, matching Candace Parker for most dunks by a woman in NCAA tournament play and during a college career (seven).

She couldn’t catch one against the Irish.

The Lady Bears had a strong cheering section that included Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III — dancing in his seat at the end of the game — and country music star Trace Adkins. He was a freshman walk-on football player at Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s when Mulkey was a senior there.

Adkins missed the Lady Bears 2005 title, but started following Mulkey and the Lady Bears when they played in the 2010 Final Four in San Antonio. He gave her a pair of custom-made boots before the game.

Notre Dame had its own star fan in former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who earned a graduate degree at the school. The Irish were wearing their green uniforms for the first time since last season’s title loss.

MINOR IRRITATION: Despite a little light sensitivity and buzzing in her ears, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey is feeling no real effects from her bout with Bell’s palsy. She was diagnosed just before the Final Four with the nerve disorder that’s left her face partially paralyzed.

However, there’s nothing wrong with her voice, even if she doesn’t always feel like she can get her point across.

“I feel frustrated because I want to say things as quickly as I normally say them without spitting and all that stuff,” Mulkey said. “But as Odyssey (Sims) told me, ‘Coach, we hear you loud and clear.’ And that’s what I don’t realize because I can only hear my ears ringing. It feels like they can’t hear my message. And they told me: ‘We hear ya, we hear ya.'”

As for her eyes, Mulkey has been wearing shades to shield them from the glare.

“They’re red and irritable,” she said. “But I see the scoreboard.”

ALTITUDE ADJUSTMENT: Baylor senior Terran Condrey was huffing and puffing early in the second half in a win over Stanford on Sunday, wondering why she felt so exhausted.

Oh yeah, Condrey suddenly remembered: She was at 5,280 feet.

Until that moment, Condrey didn’t even think about the thin air in the Mile High City.

And then, boom, a wave of fatigue swept over her.

“Seriously, all of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t breathe out there,” she said.

She quickly caught her second wind, though, as she scored 10 of her 13 points in the final half to help Baylor advance to the title game.

Even though Condrey has had a few more days at the higher elevation, she’s no closer to becoming acclimated.

“Still working on it,” Condrey said as she sat in her locker stall at Pepsi Center, the one usually occupied by Denver Nuggets point guard Andre Miller. “There’s nothing you can really do to get through it — just keep running and keep playing defense.”

UNSPOKEN DESIRE: Although they’re a senior-laden team, Notre Dame players didn’t really talk about the sense of urgency this season.

They just went about their business, preferring not to heap on more pressure.

That all changed as the team headed into overtime against Connecticut on Sunday.

Then, they brought it up.

“We said we don’t want this to be the last game we ever play together,” said fifth-year senior guard Brittany Mallory, who hit two big 3-pointers in an 83-75 OT thriller against UConn. “We dug deep and really pulled together and willed our way through that game.”

Now, Mallory’s hoping to turn a vision into reality.

“I go to sleep and I’m about to fall asleep and have a little dream that we won the championship,” she said. “It wakes me back up.

“It would definitely be the best thing to end my career with a national championship.”

POST-HOOPS CAREER: There was a time when Notre Dame junior guard Skylar Diggins wanted to be a doctor.

Fitting, since she plays with a surgeon-like precision on the court.

But she’s had a change and wants to step into the broadcast booth once she steps off the court.

“As much as I hate what they say sometimes, I really want to be an analyst,” Diggins said. “I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon out of high school. I shadowed our former team doctor and held bones and was all in.

“Then when I got in Notre Dame pre-med, I wasn’t too sure anymore so I went into the business school. But my dream is to work for ESPN one day.”

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