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WNBA Draft Senior Watch: Notre Dame, Baylor Meet For National Championship

After an incredible night of basketball at the Women’s Final Four in Tampa, the national championship game is set with the defending champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish taking on the Baylor Lady Bears in a rematch of the 2012 title game.

Before we look ahead to this clash between this pair of No. 1 seeds, let’s review how they got here as Baylor knocked off Oregon 72-67 and Notre Dame defeated UConn 81-76 on Friday night. And as always, we’ll spotlight the top senior prospects from each game with the 2019 WNBA Draft less than a week away.

(1) Baylor 72, (2) Oregon 67

En route to the Final Four, Baylor was never truly challenged as they won their first four games by an average of 38.3 points. Then they met Oregon on Friday night and found themselves in a back-and-forth contest that featured 12 ties and 22 lead changes.

Baylor responded to the challenge by exploiting their size advantage inside and clamping down on defense in the fourth quarter. The Bears outscored the Ducks 11-3 in the final six minutes of the game with Oregon shooting just 1-13 down the stretch. Baylor picked up its 28th straight win and their first trip to the national title game since winning it all back in 2012.

Senior Spotlight

Baylor’s Kalani Brown was a force on the inside all night as she finished with a game-high 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting and added seven rebounds, two assists and a block. The Ducks simply had no answer for the post duo of Brown and junior Lauren Cox, who flirted with a triple-double (21 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists). Senior guard Chloe Jackson finished with six points and six assists on the night,; it was her lowest scoring game since the first round of the NCAA tournament, but her final two points were huge and her driving layup with 39 seconds left put Baylor up for good.

Oregon senior guard Maite Cazorla finished with nine points, six rebounds and four assists in the final game of her collegiate career. Her 3-pointers with 6:12 to play in the fourth put Oregon up three to match their largest lead of the second half before the team went ice cold down the stretch. While Cazorla’s time with the Ducks has come to an end, it remains to be seen if All-American guard Sabrina Ionescu will decide to forego her final year of eligibility and enter the WNBA Draft. She said she had not decided when asked about her status after the game.

(1) Notre Dame 81, (2) Connecticut 76

This was the 50th all-time meeting between Notre Dame and Connecticut and a rematch of last year’s national semifinal; a game that began the legend of Arike Ogunbowale as she hit the first of two game-winning buzzer-beaters in the Final Four to lead the Irish to the 2018 championship. What would these teams do for an encore after last year’s instant classic? How about another back-and-forth affair that featured nine ties and 28 lead changes and came down to the final minute?

Early in the fourth quarter it looked as though UConn was going to avenge its loss from a year ago as they built a nine-point lead with under eight minutes to play – matching their largest lead of the night. But Notre Dame answered back with a 13-2 run over the following four minutes to take a two-point lead with 3:56 to play. The teams traded the lead six times over the following two-and-a-half minutes before Notre Dame pulled away down the stretch.

Just as last year’s game will be remembered for Ogunbowale’s clutch jumper in the final second, this year’s game may be remembered best for Brianna Turner’s block of Napheesa Collier’s layup attempt in the final minute. Turner missed last year’s championship run as she was sidelined with a torn ACL, but the grad student made her presence known all night long this time around as she finished with 15 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, none bigger than the one on Collier as she attempted to pull UConn within one point. The Irish would go 5-of-6 from the free throw line to close the game out. In all, after trailing by nine with under eight minutes to play, Notre Dame closed the game on a 26-12 run to knock off UConn and advance to the title game for the second straight year.

Senior Spotlight

As discussed above, Turner anchored the Irish defense and was crucial to their success against UConn. Ogunbowale went from ice cold in the first half (two points on 1-of-7 shooting) to red hot in the second half (21 points, 6-of-11 shooting) as she finished with a game-high 23 points. This followed a similar pattern to last year’s Final Four as she had a pair of slow starts, but incredible finishes.

Marina Mabrey had scored just 12 points in the first four games of the NCAA tournament combined as she entered Friday mired in a shooting slump (5-25 FG, 2-15 3P). But that did not deter her from being aggressive and looking for her shot as she matched those 12 points and knocked down three of Notre Dame’s seven 3-pointers. She also added a season-high 12 assists for her second double-double of the season. Jessica Shepard posted her 18th double-double of the season as she finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists as she played all 40 minutes for Notre Dame.

For Connecticut, the senior duo of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson – the highest scoring teammates in UConn history with 4,743 combined points – closed out their college careers with their third straight national semifinal defeat. While both were members of Connecticut’s 2016 championship team, Samuelson was unable to play in that national title game due to injury while Collier had six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench.

On Friday, it was a tale of two halves for the senior teammates as Collier had 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting, eight rebounds and four blocks in the first half, while Samuelson went scoreless and shot 0-of-5 from the field and missed all four of her 3-point attempts after draining seven in Connecticut’s Elite Eight win over Louisville.

In the second half, the roles reversed with Samuelson catching fire as she scored 15 points in the third quarter alone and finished with 20 for the game, all in the second half. Collier added four points and five rebounds as she posted her eighth straight double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

National Championship: Notre Dame vs. Baylor, Sunday, April 7, 6:00 ET, ESPN

After 62 games, the stage is set for the national championship game between the defending champion Notre Dame and the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed Baylor.

The game will pit Notre Dame’s top-ranked offense (89.1 points per game) against Baylor’s stingy defense (10th ranked in Division I at 54.6 points per game allowed).

There will be intriguing matchups all over the floor, but perhaps most important will be how Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner fare against the Baylor frontline duo of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. And, of course, whoever gets the assignment of checking Arike Ogunbowale has to be ready for her second-half heroics when the lights are shining bright.

This will be the final game for the Notre Dame quartet (Ogunbowale, Mabrey, Shepard and Turner) and the Baylor duo (Brown and Jackson) of seniors before they make their way to the WNBA to begin their professional careers. Will the Irish go out with back-to-back titles or will Baylor win their first title in seven years? Sunday can’t get here soon enough.

Notre Dame’s Road to the Title Game

  • 1st Round: (1) Notre Dame 92, (16) Bethune-Cookman 50
  • 2nd Round: (1) Notre Dame 91, (9) Michigan State 63
  • Sweet 16: (1) Notre Dame 87, (4) Texas A&M 80
  • Elite Eight: (1) Notre Dame 84, (2) Stanford 68
  • Final Four: (1) Notre Dame 81, (2) Connecticut 76

Baylor’s Road to the Title Game

  • 1st Round: (1) Baylor 95, (16) Abilene Christian 38
  • 2nd Round: (1) Baylor 102, (8) California 63
  • Sweet 16: (1) Baylor 93, (4) South Carolina 68
  • Elite Eight: (1) Baylor 85, (2) Iowa 53
  • Final Four: (1) Baylor 72, (2) Oregon 67