DENVER — Ken Starr was thumbing his smartphone as Kim Mulkey speculated about the response to Baylor’s NCAA women’s basketball championship Tuesday night.
“At Baylor they used to not let the Baptists dance,” Mulkey said. “I’ll bet they’re dancing now.”
Starr, the Baylor president, guffawed with the audience of reporters as Mulkey, perhaps more than anything else, just wanted to take a deep breath and relax.
Baylor had just flattened Notre Dame 80-61 in one of the most dominating defensive performances in NCAA history.
The Lady Bears became the seventh NCAA women’s team to go undefeated and the first to go 40-0. National player of the year Brittney Griner was in devastating form, with 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.
With Griner and the nucleus of Baylor’s team, including another punishing defender, All-American point guard Odyssey Sims, returning next season, Baylor is occupying the space normally reserved for UConn and Tennessee.
And having to answer a similar battery of questions. Such as:
How do you top perfection?
“You’re making me embrace this now instead of letting me enjoy this,” Mulkey said. “We’re going to embrace it. I don’t think you guys are going to let me hide it.”
She could have been excused for sounding exasperated, but if she did, Mulkey hid it well. All season long she urged her players to get comfortable with being the strong favorite to win the title. Along the way, Lady Bears took down Notre Dame, Connecticut, Tennessee, a rugged Big 12 Conference, Tennessee again in the Elite 8, Stanford in the national semifinals and the Fighting Irish for a second, and convincing, time.
Yet the Irish trailed only 34-28 at halftime. Griner had just nine points as Baylor couldn’t take advantage of foul trouble to center Devereaux Peters and poor shooting from its backcourt trio that keyed Notre Dame’s semifinal win over UConn.
All that changed in the second half as Griner went to work on the Irish, with Peters sitting down with four fouls. She reeled off 11 points in a nearly four-minute span midway in the period as the Lady Bears pulled out to a 69-50 lead.
Amid the flurry was a splendid sky hook shot from right side of the basket, as smooth as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and just as effective. Baylor, which shot a sizzling 63 percent in the second half, got 19 points from Sims and 12 from Destiny Williams.
“When I hit that little hook, it just got me energized,” Griner said. “I was kind of shocked it went in, but it definitely got me going.”
A shell-shocked Notre Dame (35-4), which lost to Texas A & M in last year’s championship game, got 20 points from its All-American guard, Skylar Diggins, but little else. The Irish simply had no answer for the 6-foot-8 Griner, who was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Pepsi Center.
“I think she’s one of a kind,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think she’s like a guy playing with women. There are so many things that she can do that I’ve not seen a lot of women [do].”
McGraw’s comments were amplified on ESPN and greeted by some on social media outlets with contempt (the team’s publicist issued a clarified statement by McGraw on Twitter), but not by Griner. “I definitely take it as a compliment,” she said.
While Baylor’s exploits set a new mark in NCAA annals, this team isn’t the first to win 40 games in a season. In 1979-80, Louisiana Tech notched a 40-5 record, getting extra games in a state tournament that was a hallmark of the AIAW era, and winning a third place national consolation game.
That was the season before Mulkey’s arrival as a player. In her first two seasons, the Lady Techsters absolutely dominated, going a combined 69-1 and winning AIAW and NCAA national titles.
As a coach, Mulkey has Baylor poised for similar greatness. She’s not picky about a won-loss record as long as she gets the same result next season.
“If we lose two, three, four, five or we go 30-10, I don’t care. But that’s what we want, another national championship.”
As for another national championship coach who’s already expressed the desire to aim for perfection, Mulkey offered a brief thought, perhaps in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for vein:
“I saw Calipari wants to go undefeated. Good luck to him.”