TAMPA — Baylor freshman forward NaLyssa Smith has been the first player off the bench most of the season. But in Sunday night’s Women’s NCAA Tournament national championship game, she was pressed into more action than usual.
Smith entered the game early in the first quarter when center Kalani Brown was sidelined with a cramp in her calf. And with 1:22 to play in the third quarter, she was needed again when Lauren Cox was forced out of the game with a sprained knee.
“At that point my mind just went blank," Smith said. “Everything was for Lauren. It was my time to step up."
Smith ended the game, which Baylor won 82-81 over Notre Dame, with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting. She fouled out in the game’s final minutes. She played 17 minutes, which was second only to the 18 she played in an opening round blowout of Abilene Christian.
Smith said she was already motivated to play after Cox went out, but even more so when Cox returned to the bench on crutches.
“That meant everything, just to hear her voice," Smith said. “That’s what pushed us the most."
Said coach Kim Mulkey: “Smith) has ice water in her veins. We have the best freshman recruiting class in the country. These kids will get us back here, I promise."
New Orleans and Indianapolis are the only other cities besides Tampa that have hosted the Women’s Final Four three times, and Amalie Arena is the only venue that has hosted all three times.
It has also drawn some of the largest crowds.
The announced attendance for Sunday’s championship game won by Baylor over Notre Dame 82-81 was a sold-out 20,127. Additionally, the Tampa Women’s Final Fours have recorded a total of 123,039 fans, Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said on Twitter, the most of any three-time host.
Baylor fan from afar
Bernice Mosby was all set to attend the Women’s Final Four. The former Hernando High standout, 35, had a rooting interest. She played for Baylor as a senior during the 2005-06 season after spending the first three seasons of her college career at Florida.
But Mosby got a last-minute call to play in a two-week tournament in Jordan. Still, she was not about to miss the Bears playing for a national title. Mosby stayed up until 4 a.m. in Jordan to watch the game on her computer.
“Basically, I just kept eating to stay awake,” she said. “But it wasn’t too hard because the game was so exciting. I’m just happy for them.”
Mosby transferred to play for a national title. That did not happen. Baylor lost in the Sweet 16 in her only season with the program.
“I went there because I knew what kind of program they had and what kind of coach (Kim) Mulkey was,” Mosby said. “She got the best out of me. I became a (first-round) draft pick in the WNBA because of her.
“So I feel a deep connection to the program. There’s no way I could miss not watching them win it all, even if I was this far away.”
Before Sunday’s game, Baylor was 4-2 all time against Notre Dame, with all the matchups happening since 2010. Three occurred in the Women’s NCAA Tournament, including a meeting in 2012 that Baylor won 80-61 for its second title.
Brianna Turner is the only player still around when the teams last met, in a region final in 2015. Turner, then a freshman, played a big role, finishing with 12 points and a team-high 10 rebounds to help the Fighting Irish reach the Final Four with a 77-68 victory.
Baylor’s win Sunday snapped Notre Dame’s two-game streak in the series.
Arike Ogunbowale’s 31 points were the second most scored in an NCAA championship game behind Sheryl Swoopes’ 47 in the 1993 championship between Texas Tech and Ohio State. It was also Ogunbowale’s seventh 30-point game this season, a Notre Dame record. … Brianna Turner’s 75 rebounds in the tournament tied for second all time. ... Notre Dame’s starting five finished their careers with 10,230 points, the most all time in men’s and women’s basketball. … Baylor’s Chloe Jackson, Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown, and Notre Dame’s Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey were selected for the all-tournament team. … The total combined margin of victory in this year’s Final Four (both semifinals and final) was 11 points, the closest in tournament history. … The 25 points scored by Baylor in the first quarter was the third-highest output for a single quarter in an NCAA championship game. The Bears also made history with their shooting precision. Their 53.4 percent field-goal percentage ranked second best in NCAA championship history.
Ionescu back to Oregon
Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu announced Saturday night that she is returning for her senior year. Ionescu, the NCAA’s all-time leader with 18 career triple doubles, could have left early for the WNBA draft but she wrote for the Players’ Tribune website that she has unfinished business in college. Ionescu led the Ducks to their first Women’s Final Four. The Ducks lost to Baylor in the semifinals.
She said it
“I’m not a hockey fan, I really didn’t grow up watching hockey, but I’m going to watch the Lightning because I drank all their water and all their Coke. You guys replenish that coach’s locker room, and good luck to them in the Stanley Cup.” — Baylor coach Kim Mulkey