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Chris Masoud | Wednesday, April 4, 2012

DENVER – The scene was all too familiar. The buzzer sounded, the confetti fell and Notre Dame was denied in the national championship for a second consecutive season.

Baylor looked every bit like the national favorite that had not lost a game all season, blowing past the Irish 80-61 to claim the program’s second national title. Naismith Player of the Year Brittney Griner led the Lady Bears with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, as Baylor became the first team in Division I basketball history to finish a season 40-0.

“I think it hurts no matter how much you lose by,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think the feeling last year was a little different, more of ‘We kind of let it slip away,’ but this game got out of hand. I think there was some frustration that everybody didn’t play as well as they wanted to, but it’s still pretty much the same [feeling].”

No. 4 Notre Dame (35-4) kept the contest close in the first half, heading into the break down by just six points. But like their victory over No. 2 Stanford in the national semifinals, the No. 1 Lady Bears (40-0) broke the game open in the second half, outscoring the Irish 46-33.

Irish junior guard Skylar Diggins paced Notre Dame with 20 points and sophomore guard Kayla McBride added 11, but the rest of the Irish were plagued by cold shooting.

“We just kept digging ourselves into a hole by not taking our shots,” Diggins said. “I don’t think we were taking the shots that we had and when we were, we weren’t shooting them confidently … We spent a lot of energy chasing.”

McGraw’s game plan was simple and effective in the opening minutes: double-team Griner on defense and engage the center on offense before finding the backdoor cut. Diggins and Irish graduate student forward Devereaux Peters scored a quick five points on two field goals and a foul shot in Notre Dame’s first three possessions.

But momentum turned when Peters was sent to the bench just two minutes and 38 seconds into the game after picking up two quick fouls.

“When we got into foul trouble, it just destroyed our game plan,” McGraw said. “We really needed Devereaux – she was a big part of the plan and we didn’t have her … But in the second half we were afraid to foul, and every time Brittney got the ball, even when we brought the double team, we didn’t really lean on her and she got really close to the basket.”

Griner and the Lady Bears took advantage of Peters’ absence on both ends of the floor, outscoring Notre Dame 40 to 22 in the paint and outrebounding the Irish 46 to 27. Baylor sophomore guard Odyssey Sims contributed 19 points and seven rebounds captaining the Lady Bears frontcourt.

“It’s frustrating,” Peters said. “But you can’t knock what the team has done this year in being able to get to back-to-back Final Fours and back-to-back national championships. We’ve just done so much and my teammates have stepped up when they needed to.”

Peters, senior guards Natalie Novosel and Fraderica Miller and graduate student guard Brittany Mallory leave behind quite a legacy. During their combined five-year tenure, they helped Notre Dame achieve 142 wins and reach four Sweet Sixteens, two Final Fours and two national championship games.

“It’s just a great senior class. I know me watching their whole careers on the sidelines – just amazing what they’ve been able to do, [bringing] this program back to an elite program and being able to lead this team to back-to-back national championship games,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “I hate that it ends on a game like this because you fail to see everything they did to get to this point.”

Notre Dame returns just two starters, Diggins and McBride, but McGraw said several bench players are ready to step into larger roles next season.

Diggins added that her role as a leader will also expand as Notre Dame’s lone returning senior starter and its top scorer.

“I’ve got to be a better job being a leader,” she said. “I thought I didn’t have very good leadership there tonight as far as keeping our fire, but I’ll be better. I promise.”