The game was tied 80-80 with 16 seconds on the clock — the platonic ideal of a March Madness finish, with the 20,127 people in attendance on their feet cheering as Baylor guard Chloe Jackson bled the clock down. With eight seconds left in the game, Jackson steered right around Notre Dame’s Jackie Young, charged towards the basket and tossed in a layup over 6’3 Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner’s head.
Many fans had hoped Sunday night’s NCAA women’s basketball national championship game might come down to one clutch shot — specifically, that it might offer an addition to Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale’s dazzling reel of 2018 NCAA tournament buzzer beaters. But it was Jackson who wound up sealing the game.
“Part two!” guard Moon Ursin told SB Nation in the locker room after the confetti had fallen. “She just keeps doing big things for us.” Jackson had hit almost the exact same shot against the Oregon Ducks Friday night: in a tie game with 40 seconds left, she stood at the top of the key dribbling steadily as she ran down the clock, choosing her mark and again going right as she zoomed to the basket for a wide-open lay-up.
In Friday’s game, though, her lane was open thanks to a screen from star Baylor forward Lauren Cox. Cox wasn’t on the court for Jackson’s second clincher after suffering a gruesome knee injury late in the third quarter when she was tangled up with fellow post Kalani Brown. She had to be taken off in a wheelchair, as the crowd stood and clapped, and her teammates wiped tears from their eyes while running back out on the court.
“We always face adversity and move past it,” guard Juicy Landrum said to reporters after the game. “In that huddle when LC went down, Coach told us, ‘Y’all are gonna win.’ And we pulled out the win.”
They did exactly that, surviving a predictable comeback from the never-say-die Fighting Irish to prevail, 82-81, after the same player, Ogunbowale, who made game-winners the women’s tournament standard, missed a tying free throw with three seconds left. Notre Dame took its second lead of the game with 3:17 left, having made a 27-14 run following Cox’s injury. Cox had returned to the bench in the middle of the fourth quarter on crutches, hopping over to participate in huddles and coaching up her teammates from the bench.
“At that moment, we just knew, now we gotta do it for LC,” said Ursin. “That just gave us one more motive to go out there and play to the end.”
It’s a win that would have been remarkably free of asterisks even had Cox not gotten injured. En route to the program’s third national championship, Baylor beat UConn, handing the team its first regular-season loss since 2014. They lost one game all season long, an eye-opening tumble to Stanford that they succeeded at making a teachable moment, never to be repeated again. They consistently won by the highest margins in the tournament: Baylor faced remarkable defenders like Cal’s Kristine Anigwe and the top scorer in the nation in Iowa’s Megan Gustafson — and heading into the Final Four, they were beating tourney opponents by an average of 38.25 points. The Baylor Lady Bears saw the bar set by their No. 1 seed and No. 1 ranking and steamrolled right over it.
In the Final Four itself, the team was confronted by two of the most lethal and undefendable threats in women’s college basketball in Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu and Ogunbowale. But no match-ups — not even the ones that were supposed to show how their grind-it-out style of play could never work in the offense-oriented world of basketball in 2019 — fazed them. When everyone watching was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for their remarkable consistency to falter in the face of the high-flying offenses of Oregon and Notre Dame, they didn’t.
“They say that we have an old-school type of game,” Jackson told SB Nation, smiling after Friday’s Final Four game. “But maybe old school isn’t outdated.”
The most dominant women’s college basketball team in the country, all season long, was using the oldest game plan in the book. “It’s like, offense versus defense and defense wins ball games so that’s what we mainly focus on,” explained freshman Nalyssa Smith to SB Nation, distilling their victorious run down to the simplest of terms.
“We rely on our defense because when our shot isn’t falling, we know we can hold our opponents to lower points,” Richards added, speaking to reporters after the Final Four. That defense helped them get a comfortable lead — they were ahead by as many as 17 points — early in the title game.
“Bring it back out [to the guards]; when they come back out, throw it in here [to the posts],” Kalani Brown told reporters during the tournament’s media day, neglecting to emphasize how her 6’7 height and powerful partner in the paint in Lauren Cox help make that straightforward plan so reliable. “It’s just a little game, like hot potato. That’s how we’ve gotten here. We’ve just played some good team basketball. This is the most unselfish team I’ve ever played on.”
Baylor’s play might have been better characterized as great team basketball, even better than it had been during their already-dominant regular season. They entered the tournament as the nation’s best defense, but scored 88.2 points per game in the tournament. And they had no single secret weapon, or under-heralded star — they had about five, as players that might have never otherwise landed in the national spotlight rose to the challenge game after game after game.
There was Jackson, the graduate transfer from LSU who had never played point guard until Baylor dismissed its starter in the preseason. Her 26 points in the national championship were the most she scored all season — never mind her five assists and two steals.
There was DiDi Richards, who had a career-high 25 points against South Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen and shot 65 percent in the tournament — and whose role on the team is as its best defender, not as an offensive threat. Alongside Landrum, she held Ionescu to 25 percent from the floor. “Teams are going to not play me because you kind of have to pick your poison,” she said. “Either you want the guards to kill you or the posts to kill you. You really don’t want our posts to kill you, so you’re going to rely on our guards.”
There was Landrum, who also more than kept up with Ogunbowale and Ionescu. “She’s really tough to guard,” Landrum told reporters of the Notre Dame star after the title game. “But coming around all those screens, I actually got a block on her — I feel good about that. I tried to slow her down as much as I could. I’m no DiDi but I can be a second DiDi.”
There was Smith, the 6’2 true freshman forward tasked with filling the massive hole left by Cox’s injury. “When they called my name to sub in, in my head it was just like, ‘It’s your time to step up,’” she told SB Nation. Smith went 7-9 from the floor and got 6 rebounds.
Even if some onlookers were skeptical — if other teams had brighter stars and bigger buzz — Baylor never lost faith that they had all the pieces needed to win, pieces that became even more important when one of their core players went out at the most pivotal moment in the season.
“The first day of practice I knew we had a special team — I knew we were going to get here,” said Smith. “We all just dreamed of something like this, and finally it’s happening.”