TAMPA, Fla. — From the highest rafter of Amalie Arena, the venue in which Baylor will play for its third national title on Sunday, hangs the 1982 NCAA championship banner heralding Louisiana Tech’s 76-62 victory against Cheyney State.
It was the first ever NCAA women’s basketball championship, and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, a point guard for the Bulldogs, remembers it well.
“Debra Wideman, that name familiar to you? Her brother is Dennis Rodman. She and I came off the bench, we were co-MVPs. I always had assists at the other end to Rodman and (Janice) Lawrence,” Mulkey recalled. “That’s what I remember, is who we played, what they did to us, and how effective I was in breaking the press.”
Against defending champion Notre Dame (35-3) on Sunday, the Bears (36-1) have the opportunity to achieve the very thing Mulkey did in that inaugural NCAA tournament. Baylor’s won the NCAA championship before — in 2005 with a win against Michigan State and again in 2012 against the Fighting Irish. But for the 12 women on its current roster, the experience will be a new one.
That’s just one reason why the Bears feel lucky to be coached by someone like Mulkey.
“She’s a legend,” sophomore guard Didi Richards said of Mulkey, who is the first coach in NCAA history to win a national championship as a player, assistant coach and head coach. “I don’t even think some of our freshman realize how amazing she is or was whenever she played. I think it’s amazing that she’s done all the things we want to do. That’s what makes it so fun playing for her.”
The Bears might be close to taking it all, but perhaps the biggest challenge yet stands in their way. All five starting players for Notre Dame average double digit points per game, which is bound to make Baylor’s defensive task a tough one. The Fighting Irish have also played in four of the last six NCAA championships, making them no stranger to the big stage.
And even though Mulkey has been there before in more than one capacity, she admits that every single trip is distinctly different from the last.
“I have a locker room full of unbelievable competitors, but it’s a totally different personality than the 2012 team,” Mulkey said. “It’s my job to figure it out and adjust to them when it comes to motivation and how to get the most out of them, decide what their roles are.”
As it was in Baylor’s 72-67 semifinal win against Oregon on Friday night, the answer is likely to be the post combination of Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown.
Cox and Brown scored 21 and 22 points, respectively, against the Ducks, adding 26 total rebounds and four blocks. Stopping fellow All-American Arike Ogunbowale — who had a pair of buzzer beaters in the Final Four a year ago to help lead her team to the championship — will be key to Baylor’s success.
But if the Bears ever lose focus, they know just who to look for on the sideline.
“Just seeing her get amped, we build off that. When she gets hype, we’re hype,” Brown said of Mulkey. “When she’s getting on you, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, she’s terrible.’ Nah, when she stops talking to you, you should be worried. When she’s quiet, you should be scared.”
On Friday night, though, Mulkey did take a quick moment for herself. When the final buzzer sounded, and her team’s win secure, Mulkey squatted down on the sideline of the Amalie Arena court as her players celebrated in front of her. She wanted a moment, Mulkey said, to take it all in.
Mulkey’s been there a few times before, but that only makes her more sure of how difficult a task it really is.
“It’s so hard to win championships,” Mulkey said. “I’ve been the favorite and not won ’em. I’ve been the underdog and won ’em. There are no guarantees in this business. That’s why you cherish the moment.”
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