Once unthinkable, Texas A&M crowned champions for first time
INDIANAPOLIS -- Texas A&M overcame a lot on Tuesday night. Its own gender-biased history. A hostile Indiana crowd. The newly anointed "face of the game" in Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins. The hand-wringing over a national championship game without UConn.
The Aggies went to a place they'd never been, the national title game, and made it their own.
In the 30th anniversary of the women's NCAA championship, Texas A&M -- which didn't even admit women a half-century ago -- beat Notre Dame 76-70, setting off an exuberant, joyful and unexpected celebration.
The game was everything that the men's championship -- played 24 hours earlier -- was not: riveting, well-played, high-scoring, star-driven.
The game's two stars were stark contrasts. Notre Dame's nimble, graceful guard Diggins looked at one point as though she would lead the Irish to victory with slicing penetration and buzzer-beating jumpers. But the Irish ran into a brick wall: Danielle Adams.
The Aggies' All-American -- a junior college transfer who shed 40 pounds off her 280-pound frame last summer and turned herself into a force no other team could solve -- led her team. She scored 30 points -- 22 in the second half -- and grabbed nine rebounds and was named the game's Most Outstanding Player.
"I had a little voice in my head that said 'Don't let this team down,'" Adams said. "I just took the game over."
She wasn't bragging, just relating the facts. Though Notre Dame was doubling and, at times, tripling her, Adams pounded the ball inside, drawing fouls and frustrating the Irish.
"She's a big post, and she knows what she's doing," said Notre Dame forward Devereaux Peters. "We couldn't guard her."
Adams wasn't Notre Dame's only problem. Early on, Texas A&M's speed and relentless defense stunned the Irish. The Aggies jumped out to a 12-4 lead in the first five minutes, and Notre Dame turned the ball over, again and again, unable to cope with the pressure.
But A&M senior guard Sydney Colson got into early foul trouble trying to guard Diggins. And with Colson on the bench, Notre Dame chipped away at the lead. The Irish went on an 8-0 run in the final five minutes, led by Diggins.
At halftime Notre Dame was up by two, 35-33. The Irish went on a 7-2 run to start the second half.
"I told coach we've got to call a timeout and fix this," said assistant coach and defensive guru Vic Schaefer. "He said 'We've got a media (timeout) coming.' I said 'I'm afraid it's going to be over if we wait much longer.'"
In the huddle they stressed to Adams -- who has an astonishingly effective outside shot -- that she needed to take the ball inside. And she did.
"We did not find an answer for her," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "She did a really good job of getting us in foul trouble."
And it was Adams' dominance that helped create the biggest play of the game. On an Aggies inbound, with a minute to play in the game, three Irish players sagged in on Adams, leaving teammate Tyra White alone on the three-point line. She drilled the shot that gave Texas A&M a 73-68 lead.
"That was a knife right in my heart," McGraw said. "That was the game, that play right there."
The shot silenced the decidedly pro-Notre Dame crowd. Though there was concern that a game without Connecticut, or a known star like Brittney Griner, might not attract attention, Notre Dame's presence helped fill the arena with fans who made the three-hour drive to Conseco Fieldhouse.
And the game turned out to be far more compelling than the pundits predicted. Rather than freeze on the big stage, newcomers A&M excelled: shooting 54.7 percent, 68.2 percent in the second half.
"Tonight we gave you that game," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "We gave you that national championship game without the so-called powers of the world. The two powers tonight were the two that earned it."
As the final seconds ticked off, Adams -- who became the only junior college player other than Sheryl Swoopes to be named MOP -- stood at the free throw line to add one more point to her total. Around her, the A&M players began to hug each other and cry on the court.
They had accomplished something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago: women weren't admitted to the university until 1963. They had to rely on a federal court order to be allowed in the marching band in the mid-1980s. Early women's teams were forced to use a men's locker room to change: flowers were placed in the urinals to make it "feminine."
Texas A&M was on the outside of women's basketball back then. And a lot of people considered them outsiders this week, strangers who crashed the Final Four and interrupted the parade of well-known teams.
Instead the Aggies are the 2011 national champions. And very deserving ones at that.