DENVER — On a night when the undercard trumped the main event, two players barely mentioned in the buildup to the Women’s Final Four were the unexpected, and undisputed stars.
Fifth-year Notre Dame senior Brittany Mallory was left open by UConn not just once, but twice, in overtime of Sunday’s first semifinal game, and she burned the Huskies both times with critical 3-point baskets.
Stanford dared another senior, Baylor’s Terran Condrey more times than that in the finale, and she made the Cardinal pay for the repeated gamble nearly every time.
Notre Dame and Baylor reached Tuesday’s national championship game for plenty of other reasons, but their multiple-threat attacks caused UConn and Stanford to take some calculated risks.
The Huskies’ gambit paid off for about 43 minutes, even after Mallory, a hard-nose defensive specialist, buried a trey early in the overtime period that would prove to be the final go-head basket.
It wasn’t until Irish All-American Skylar Diggins’ block of Bria Hartley’s attempted layup with 1:43 to play, and her kickout to Mallory for another 3, that Notre Dame got the momentum it needed. In winning 83-75, the Irish took down their Big East rivals for the third time this season.
“Sky told me to keep shooting,” said Mallory, who finished with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting and who never felt more confident than on her last bucket of the game. “I took a deep breath and I let it go and I was thinking to myself this one’s going in. I was so happy, I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy.”
Said Notre Dame center Devereaux Peters: “She almost cried.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma wanted to cry too. “Brittany Mallory made two huge shots, and that’s who we wanted to shoot the ball. And God bless her, she stepped up and made the shots.”
In unbeaten Baylor’s gutty 59-47 win over Stanford, Brittany Griner and Odyssey Sims, the Lady Bears’ All-Americans, weren’t at full tilt, at least offensively. With the Cardinal sagging and doubling down on Griner and making sure to have a body on Sims, Condrey found plenty of room to shoot mid-range jumpers. She scored 10 of her 13 points in the second half, converting 5-of-9 field goal attempts, and matched Griner’s output in scoring.
For only the third time this season, Condrey scored in double figures, coming up one point shy of her season high.
“Brittney Griner is the face of women’s basketball right now, and we embrace that,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “But our team is not just Brittney Griner.”
Stanford had a moderately successful game plan, with All-American Nneka Ogwumike driving right at Griner most of the night. Ogwumike scored 22 points but didn’t get the help she needed from the Cardinal’s perimeter scorers, who were 2-for-17 from 3-point range.
And in the second half, Baylor turned up its defensive pressure and made a steady march to the free throw line, hitting 19 for 26.
“Defensively to me wasn’t the problem, except for our fouling,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose team has come up short in five consecutive Final Fours. “I just felt like we needed other people besides Nneka.”
People like Condrey and Mallory.