By Arnie Stapelton
DENVER (AP) — This was not the way the spectacular senior class that transformed Notre Dame’s program and shook up the Big East wanted to end their college careers.
The school’s trio of senior starters went out with a whimper Tuesday night in an 80-61 loss to Baylor and the Lady Bears’ towering center, Brittney Griner.
Leading scorer Natalie Novosel didn’t make a single basket and only scored five points, 10 below her average and 23 fewer than she had against Baylor in November.
“It was just not my night,” Novosel said.
Nor was it Devereaux Peters’ or Brittany Mallory’s.
Peters ended up a sideline spectator for most of the night because of foul trouble, finishing with just seven points and three rebounds while logging only 15 minutes.
“Not really what you want to do the last game of your career,” she said.
Mallory, the shooting star in Notre Dame’s semifinal win over Connecticut, came crashing back to earth with just three points and then hit the floor so hard in the closing minutes that she, too, had to take a breather on the bench.
“It was a tough loss,” Mallory said, “but it was a great year.”
Indeed, the Irish went 35-4 and once again beat Big East bully UConn in the national semifinals only to once again come up short of cutting down the nets.
They were hoping to deny the Lady Bears an unbeaten season and a shot at history — Baylor is the first team in NCAA history to go 40-0.
Instead, Notre Dame became the third team to lose in back-to-back championship games, joining Tennessee (2003 and ’04) and Auburn, which dropped three straight from 1988-90.
A year ago, they let a late lead slip away in a 76-70 loss to Texas A&M.
“It hurts no matter how much you lose by,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “The feeling last year was different, we let it slip away. This one got out of hand. There was frustration everyone didn’t play as well as they could have.”
Notre Dame’s senior class had 117 wins, but Griner, with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, barely gave them a chance at No. 118.
“It’s such a tough way for their career to end,” McGraw said, sobbing.
The Irish hung tough for 25 minutes even as Griner was getting her buckets, boards and blocks in bunches. They had trimmed an early 14-point deficit to 42-39 when Peters picked up her fourth foul on a hard pick on Odyssey Simms and took a seat.
Baylor closed with a spectacular display of amazing athleticism by Griner and precise shooting by her supporting cast in a dominant 38-22 closing run.
Throughout their season, the Irish were driven by the mantra “unfinished business,” but so was Baylor, which was dumped by Texas A&M in the regional finals last year. The Lady Bears even had the mantra printed up on notebooks, banners and bright green wristbands as a constant reminder that they needed to take care of business this time around.
They did, denying the Irish their second national title and first since 2001.
Griner scratched out the “Un” in a sign on the court as confetti rained down on the Lady Bears.
Notre Dame didn’t get to ditch the motto.
While Griner is coming back for her senior season and a shot at becoming a two-time champ, the path back to the Final Four is a lot more arduous for the Irish, who are graduating several seniors.
The Irish have won four of their last five games against perennial power UConn, including an 83-75 thriller in overtime in the semifinals Sunday night, and they’ve handed Geno Auriemma’s Huskies their only two losses in 22 NCAA tournament games since 2009.
Yet, they return just two starters next season in guards Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride, who kept the Irish close for much of this game and finished with 20 and 11 points, respectively.
The Irish trailed 34-28 at halftime and pulled within three five minutes into the second half before Peters picked up her fourth foul.
“Our halftime was actually kind of upbeat,” Mallory said. “We were only down six and we didn’t play a great half. The second half has been our half all year.”
Not on this night.
Playing mostly zone and doubling Griner was “fairly effective in the first half,” McGraw said. “In the second half when we got into foul trouble it destroyed our game plan. In the second half we were afraid to foul. When she got the ball we didn’t lean on her and she shot over us. She made great shots, she’s a great player. She was unstoppable.
“It would have been great to see Devereaux play 39 minutes, but I don’t think it would have changed a lot. (Griner is) one of a kind.”
The loss to Baylor left the Irish lamenting anew their slip-up against Texas A&M last season.
“This is probably worse because this is it for me,” Peters said. “I’m done playing college basketball. I try not to think about it. I try to think about the good side of it.”
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