One hundred and thirty-four days ago, Notre Dame and Baylor met with the same goal -- the national championship game -- and the same slogan: unfinished business. Their 2011 seasons had both ended unhappily and both to Texas A&M: Baylor's loss came in the regional final and the Irish fell in the title game.
On that November day in Waco, Texas, the nation's top-ranked teams combined to score 175 points and Baylor won 94-81. The Irish went on to lose twice more: to West Virginia and to UConn in the Big East conference tournament final. Baylor hasn't lost, has never given up that many points again and is on the verge of winning more games than any collegiate team in history.
Notre Dame has the advantage of having already seen Baylor: The Fighting Irish might not have the psychological fear of facing Griner that Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike described. But the Irish face a Baylor team that's vastly improved defensively and has an aura about it: Destiny isn't just the name of the Bears junior forward.
Just as they did in November, Baylor will beat Notre Dame on Tuesday.
1. Get the ball to BG. Brittney Griner. Big Girl. Whatever the initials stand for, it's Baylor's mantra. "Coach always says, 'Get B.G. the ball, get B.G. the ball," point guard Odyssey Sims said. "We have to run the offense through her. And we're going to pound it inside." Baylor struggled to get the ball to Griner against Stanford -- her three field goals tied her season low. But when she faced smaller, quicker Notre Dame, she had 32 points. The Irish -- who play four guards and lone post Devereaux Peters -- may have gotten a blueprint on how to limit Griner from Stanford but they won't be able to execute it. Griner enjoys seeing players come in the paint and do a U-turn and go back out. "I guess I like getting in my opponents head just by being there," she said. She's there -- 7-feet-2 across and 9-feet-4 high when full fully extended. Griner is poised for another big night.
2. Let Odyssey shine. Sims admitted that she played with a chip on her shoulder in November against Skylar Diggins, widely hyped as the best point guard in the country. Kim Mulkey made sure that her own point guard was irritated. "She challenged me," Sims said. "She said Skylar would take it to me." Didn't happen: Sims had six steals and two turnovers while Diggins had seven turnovers and just one steal. Notre Dame plays a pressing, fast-paced transition game, but Sims can neutralize that by keeping Diggins in check so Mulkey needs to get under Sims' skin again. "The key tomorrow is taking care of the ball," Sims said. "It starts with me -- I have to make good decisions."
3. Enjoy the moment. This is what Baylor has been pointing toward, not just all season but from the moment the Lady Bears got a signed letter of intent from Griner. Mulkey said Griner doesn't need a ring to validate her ability, but Griner says she needs one to fulfill her career. "It would mean a lot to me," Griner said. "When I came here I promised a national championship. If I didn't get one I'd feel I'd let people down." So far the moment doesn't seem too big for the Lady Bears. They're having fun. Griner has become remarkably comfortable in the spotlight -- dunking, sharing stories about having to shop for size 17 shoes online, ("You can't really go in the store and say, 'Hey I need a 17'") and longboarding around campus. She teases Robert Griffin III that she "had this hairdo first" and has hatched a plan with RGIII to have a dunk contest at school. "She's the goofiest on the team," Sims said of her famous teammate. "She's just a big kid." Griner is sweet and unthreatening off the court; on the court she's the most intimidating presence the women's game has ever seen.
Mulkey might be right: Griner doesn't need a championship to validate her career. But she's going to get one.