DENVER (AP) – The Irish lost the national championship for the second straight season Tuesday night, beaten by Baylor and its superstar center 80-61. A year ago, Notre Dame let a late lead slip away in a six-point loss to Texas A&M in the title game, so they were eager for atonement, but it was not to be.
The Irish (35-4) hung tough for 25 minutes even as Brittney Griner was getting her buckets, boards and blocks in bunches. They had trimmed an early 14-point deficit to 42-39 when Peters picked up her fourth foul on a hard pick on Odyssey Simms and took a seat.
“It was very winnable,” ND senior Natalie Novosel said. “We were lucky at halftime to only be down six. We wanted to come out and be the aggressors in the second half. That didn’t happen.”
Baylor, the first team ever to go 40-0, closed with a spectacular 38-22 run.
“We’re fighters. We never quit,” Peters said. “We just couldn’t get key stops when we needed to.”
The Irish were 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, Notre Dame became the third team to lose in back-to-back championship games, joining Tennessee (2003 and `04) and Auburn, which dropped three straight from 1988-90.
Notre Dame also lost to Baylor in the WNIT final, 94-81 on Nov. 17 in Waco, when Griner dominated to the tune of 32 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
While Griner is coming back for her senior season and a shot at becoming a two-time champ, the path back to the Final Four is a lot more arduous for the Irish, who are graduating several seniors.
The Irish have won four of their last five games against perennial power Connecticut, including an 83-75 thriller in overtime in the semifinals Sunday night, and they’ve handed Geno Auriemma’s Huskies their only two losses in 22 NCAA tournament games since 2009.
The Irish return just two starters in guards Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride, who kept the Irish close for much of the game and finished with 20 and 11 points, respectively.
Notre Dame has a history of pulling off monumental upsets. The men’s basketball team ended UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak and the football team stopped Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak.
McGraw’s squad has its own share of streak-busting. They ended UConn’s 112-game home winning streak in 2005 and this season snapped the Huskies’ 57-game BIG EAST conference winning streak in early January.
Griner and the rest of the unbeaten Lady Bears just weren’t going to be denied, though.
The Irish’s game plan was to engage Baylor’s 6-foot-8 shot-blocking machine in the high post to open lanes to the basket. When Griner stepped out, the Irish drove like crazy. When she hedged to the baseline, they took quick jumpers from around the free throw line.
The strategy kept the Irish close for a while. They trailed 34-28 at the half and cut that deficit in half in the first five minutes of the second half before Peters went to the bench with her fourth foul.
Playing mostly zone and doubling Griner was “fairly effective in the first half,” McGraw said. “In the second half when we got into foul trouble it destroyed our game plan.
“In the second half we were afraid to foul. When she got the ball we didn’t lean on her and she shot over us. She made great shots, she’s a great player. She was unstoppable,” McGraw added. “It would have been great to see Devereaux play 39 minutes, but I don’t think it would have changed a lot. She’s one-of-a-kind.”
“Being able to lead this team to back-to-back national championship games, it’s amazing” Diggins said. “I hate that it ends on a game like this, because you fail to see everything they did to get to this point,” she continued. “… We’ll all keep in touch. They’re like my sisters. We’re going to miss them. Very proud of them. I know the Irish fans are proud, as well.”