After Baylor squandered a 17-point lead, the Lady Bears' Chloe Jackson capped the best game of her career with a driving layup with 3.9 seconds remaining to put Baylor up 82-80. On the other end, Arike Ogunbowale got fouled, but her first free-throw attempt rimmed out. Though she tried to miss the second one, it was all net, and with fouls to give, that was the game.
For much of the game, Baylor continued the dominance they've shown all season long. They jumped out to a 25-14 lead after the first quarter, and held Notre Dame at an arm's length with their typical stout defense, and command of the paint through All-Americans Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox.
With Baylor up by as much as 17 points, this season's title game looked like it was going to be a repeat of the 2012 championship between these two teams, when Baylor, led by their star center Brittney Griner, cruised to a 80-61 victory. But late in the third, Cox went down with a nasty looking leg injury that forced her to leave on a wheelchair, and knocked her out of the game. And with Cox's injury, and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Ogunbowale to end the third quarter, it was clear the momentum was changing.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey could sense the game slipping away when Cox went down.
"We controlled that game from the start till the time she went off the floor," Mulkey said. "We had to regroup. For us to win probably was a miracle in itself when you lose a player of that caliber, not only the talent she has, but she's our leader, people. She's our leader."
The Irish burst out of the gates in the fourth quarter, thanks to some hot shooting from the school's all-time leading 3-point shooter, Marina Mabrey. The senior knocked down three triples in a two-minute span, including one to tie it at 74-74 with just over five minutes to play.
From there, the teams traded bucket for bucket down the stretch, as the game turned from a snoozer into an all-time classic as Baylor won the third national title in school history.
Here are a few takeaways from Baylor's victory:
Cox's game-ending injury shows her impact
Cox has been tremendous for Baylor all season long, but she's often been overshadowed by her frontcourt partner Brown. But if there was any doubt about Cox's impact on this Lady Bears team, it was put to rest after she went down with a leg injury in the closing minute of the third quarter.
To that point, Cox was playing a typically impressive game on both ends of the floor. She had eight points, eight rebounds, two assists and three blocks, and most importantly was leading the Bears to another strong defensive performance. Baylor was the No. 1 field goal defense in the country this season, and Cox's leadership was a big reason for that strength.
That defense forced Notre Dame into a 1 of 13 start from the field, and just six points in the paint in the first half. That's impressive against any team, but especially an elite offense like the Fighting Irish. Up until the point that Cox went down, Baylor was up 62-50, and Notre Dame was just 19 of 51 from the field through nearly three quarters.
After Cox's injury, the Irish shot 9 of 21 from the field, and scored 31 of their 81 points in just 11 minutes. Now, that wasn't all because Cox was no longer in the game, but it was certainly a big reason. Without Baylor's two elite defenders inside, it was much easier for Notre Dame to get into the paint. In fact, on Notre Dame's very first possession after her injury, Ogunbowale sliced into the paint for one of the easiest looks she got all night.
And on the other end, even with some big buckets from freshman NaLyssa Smith, Baylor had a much tougher time scoring without Cox in the game. They were unable to go to their classic high-low action with Brown and Cox, and it became much easier for Notre Dame's defense to key in on Brown and deny her the ball. Scenes like this were commonplace, with multiple defenders eating up Brown's space.
As a team, Baylor shot just 8 of 20 from the field in the fourth, which is a decent mark, but nowhere near as good as their 31-of-51 shooting performance in the first three quarters.
It wasn't just Cox's physical presence that was missing for Baylor though. As the reaction of Mulkey and the rest of her teammates showed, Cox was an integral part of this team, and the Bears missed her leadership down the stretch.
"Lauren Cox! My God, she's the heart and soul of our team," Mulkey said. " And I just know she's hurt because that kid would've gotten up. But you know what — God is good. He blessed these kids. They fought through it."
That they were able to finish out the game for her surely only made it more special.
Jackson plays the game of her life
With two of the best bigs in the country in 6-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Cox, the game plan for opposing defenses against Baylor all season was to pack the paint and force them to hit shots from the outside. Or, at the very least, make them work as hard as possible to get the ball inside.
On Sunday night, Jackson obliged. The grad transfer from LSU put together the best game of her life at the perfect time for the Bears. She went 13-of-25 from the field, knocking down deep two after deep two. Some were open, sacrificed by Notre Dame in order to protect the paint, but she made plenty of tough ones as well.
Late in the fourth quarter though, with the game on the line, Jackson didn't settle for the jumper. She put the ball on the deck and got all the way to the rim to scoop home what would be the game-winning layup. She finished with a season-high 26 points and five assists, and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
Arike can't play hero this time
Last season's Final Four was defined by the heroics of Ogunbowale. The Fighting Irish star became an instant star by hitting game-winning shots in both the semifinal to shock UConn, and the national championship to complete Notre Dame's comeback over Mississippi State.
She tried to pull off a similar routine on Sunday night in Tampa, and nearly succeeded. Though Baylor's elite defense forced her into all sorts of tough shots, Ogunbowale was, for much of the game, the only player on Notre Dame who could get anything to go down. The senior ended up finishing with 31 points and six rebounds on 11-of-27 from the field, with 17 of those points coming in the second half.
So it was no surprise that they decided to put the ball in her hands with the game on the line. Down by two in the closing seconds, she broke free along the baseline, took the inbounds pass and drew a foul. But where she was automatic in the clutch last season, things didn't bounce her way this time around. Her first free throw rattled out, and then when she tried to miss the second one, it went straight in, sealing the Irish loss.
It was a difficult way for Ogunbowale's college career to come to a close, but should take nothing away from what she's done at Notre Dame.