Baylor two wins away from perfect season
DENVER—An hour after losing in last season's regional finals, Brittney Griner sent Baylor coach Kim Mulkey a text.
The message was simple: the 6-foot-8 junior phenom took responsibility for the loss and said it wouldn't happen again.
So far Griner has fulfilled her promise, helping Baylor to an undefeated season and has the team two victories away from the first 40-win season in NCAA history.
"She was the only kid that texted me within an hour of the loss," Mulkey said. "She said she was sorry that she didn't deliver. When you have a kid as talented as she is, you knew she was going to come back an even better player. She's stronger, she's forceful. She's dominant."
Standing in the way of a second national championship for Baylor (38-0) are Stanford and the Ogwumike sisters. The Cardinal (35-1) are making their fifth straight trip to the Final Four and are hoping to win their first title in 20 years.
While Stanford and Baylor haven't played each other in four seasons, the other semifinal game features two teams who know each other inside and out. Notre Dame and Connecticut are facing each other for the eighth time in the past 14 months.
"I'd much rather play teams you don't know so much about," Mulkey said. "I don't think we played Stanford since Nneka is a freshman. Have to make sure I'm not overmedicated and forgotten something. We are familiar with Stanford."
These two teams haven't played since 2008 -- the year before Griner showed up, but Nnemkadi Ogwumike is eager for the chance. Ogwumike faced Griner in an AAU game back in high school, and that's when she insists she learned to shoot 3-pointers because scoring in the paint was a big problem. But the senior feels like everybody else in the country has already faced Griner, and now she's finally getting that chance in her NCAA tournament farewell.
"I'm very excited to finally get a chance to play against her," Nnemkadi Ogwumike said. "I feel like I'm the only person who hasn't played against her, it's a big challenge. I'm never one person to win easy. For us to come out and do what we need to do to win this game would be a really great accomplishment for us."
Mulkey was dismissing her bout with Bell's palsy as more of an inconvenience than anything else. She announced Thursday that she was suffering from the disorder of the nerve.
"Don't ask me to smile," Mulkey said. "I think the distortion of the face is mild compared to cases I've seen before. The biggest problem I've had is my eyes, the light, the tears and dryness is all a part of it. The distortion, I'm just another ugly coach anyway. I'm not vain so it doesn't matter."
Baylor has been focused with the mantra of "Unfinished Business" all season long. Every player on the team is wearing a wristband with the two words on it. Mulkey said the team used the same motto the year it won its only title in 2005. The Lady Bears had been knocked out the year before on a tough last-second lost.
They want a national championship, and until they get it, I just feel like they feel it's unfinished business," Mulkey said. "Now, I know this, that if we go out on that floor and somebody beats us, I believe in my whole heart that we will be OK, because they're going to have to play well. They're going to have to play well and how can you be disappointed if somebody just plays better than you and you played just about as well as you could play? And that's how we're going to approach it."
Stanford could easily claim that motto for itself, having matched UConn and LSU with its five-year Final Four run. But Ogwumike says the Cardinal don't use that for extra motivation.
"I can honestly say that it hasn't been a focus of our team," she said. "I think more so last year than it was this year at all. It was devastating when we lost last year. This year it's a new team, a fresh team. They understand what hard work really takes to get here. No one pays attention to us."
It's hard to ignore Stanford, which has won a school-record 32 straight games. The Cardinal's only loss this season came at Connecticut in early November. Still few people are giving the Cardinal much of a chance to win seeing them as a heavier underdog.
"I don't think we go into many games where we're not expected to win," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "This game, there might not be anyone in this room besides me that thinks we are going to win."
Playing the underdog role doesn't bother Ogwumike.
"I'm here having fun with my team, I'm excited, ready to play, not just going to give on Sunday," she said. "I'll give it all I got especially because I'm a senior, it's my last hurrah you got to go out with a bang."