Women's Basketball Down To Notre Dame, Baylor

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Notre Dame takes on Baylor on Tuesday night for the NCAA women's basketball title. The Fighting Irish have a challenge on their hands. Baylor is undefeated this season and has a superstar player, Britney Griner, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's April 3rd and Kentucky has the men's crown, but the March Madness isn't over just yet. Notre Dame and Baylor are playing for the NCAA Women's Division 1 basketball championship this evening in Denver. Notre Dame just missed the title last year, so this year the Fighting Irish adopted the slogan: Unfinished Business. And they did make it all the way back to the final game.

But NPR's Tom Goldman says Notre Dame might have picked a bad year to finish that business of winning the whole thing.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: That's because they're going up against a juggernaut. You have a better term for a talented Baylor team that's rolling into the final with a 39-and-0 record, and a player being called the Bill Russell/Wilt Chamberlain take your pick of women's basketball?

Now, before we hyperventilate too much about 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, the girl with the floppy dreadlocks, let's acknowledge this. She can be contained on offense as she was Sunday in Baylor's semi-final win over Stanford. But when she thinks her size 17 Nikes down to the other end of the court, she's peerless.

This is Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey.

KIM MULKEY: I've been around the game since I was 18 years old at this level, and I've never seen anybody dominate on the defensive end - just her wings span and her presence.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Orrange able to handle the ball but blocked by, guess who? Griner.

GOLDMAN: Blocking shots is Griner's favorite thing to do. She only did it twice in Sunday's game, televised on ESPN. But blocks are only part of what she does on the defensive end. Witness the Stanford players who drove to the basket, eyes darting around looking for her, and then driving right back out again.

Cardinal all-American forward now to ogle Nweke Ogwumike had some success attacking the basket. But afterwards, looking at a stat sheet that showed Stanford made only 20 of 60 shots, she acknowledged the Griner effect.

NWEKE OGWUMIKE: It was kind of difficult for us to really figure out who wanted to do on offense. I think we were too worried about her.

GOLDMAN: Notre Dame is not as big as Stanford, big is good when it comes to guarding Griner. But the Irish do have one advantage, they already played Baylor this season, a 13-point loss back in November. So the players don't have to go through that eyes-wide-like-saucers moment when they confront Griner's height and 7-foot, 4-inch wingspan on defense. The Notre Dame plan of attack is just that.

NATALIE NOVOSEL: You just got to be relentless and being craftier with it.

GOLDMAN: Senior guard Natalie Novosel says driving to the basket is her bread and butter move and that won't change against Griner.

NOVOSEL: Go up one way, you engage her. You know, you dish it out. You just can't shoot into her. So, I think just being smarter and trying to be crafty with the ball so that she can't get a hand on it.

GOLDMAN: Novosel, who's 5'11, says she'll draw on her experiences when she was younger and played hard-nosed basketball against a 6-foot-5 brother and 6'2" sister.

There is a lighter side to being a towering defensive phenomenon. Griner likes to bomb around the Baylor campus on her long skateboard. She'll put on body paint for Baylor football games. And she can find humor in the fact that her mere presence on the court stresses out her opponents.

BRITTNEY GRINER: I see somebody coming in and they see me come over. And they kind of do a little U-turn and go back out. You might catch a grin on my face sometimes in the game.

GOLDMAN: Do you talk? Is it...

GRINER: Do I talk smack?

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRINER: It depends. I mean, if I know the person, sometimes I've had friends on other teams and I'm just talking to them. And somebody would like to go try to ghost for him, I'm like nope. Nope. Nope. Try again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Tonight, everyone not wearing Fighting Irish colors will say the chances are yes, yes, yes that Griner and the Lady Bears win and make history. The first team, men or women, to win 40 games in a season.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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