Posted: Monday April 4, 2005 7:38PM; Updated: Monday April 4, 2005 7:38PM
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- When Baylor started practice in October, coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson took one moment to remind her players about their 2004 tournament loss to Tennessee.
She never mentioned it again.
"No one who was in that game will ever forget it, so it should motivate you," she said after the Bears reached Tuesday's national championship game.
After their 68-57 semifinal victory over LSU, Mulkey-Robertson and her players sounded as if they almost had to convince themselves they weren't dreaming. They face Michigan State, another first-time finalist, in Tuesday night's title game.
A year ago, it was a different story. The Bears' anticipated tournament run stalled in the second round when they were called for a foul with 0.2 seconds left, and Tennessee made both free throws to escape with a 71-69 victory.
But the Baylor players now credit that loss as the catalyst for this season's remarkable run. Guard Chameka Scott said her teammates realized how close they were to being a national contender and spent the summer working to correct their flaws.
The more important lesson was one that was lost on LSU and Tennessee, which both blew double-digit leads Sunday night -- closing out games.
"We found ourselves in a lot of close games last year, that we didn't finish, and we had to find out why," Scott said Monday. "We know we have to get the ball in the post because it's no secret that's our strength."
The Bears (32-3) responded this year by winning 27 games by 10 or more points, including Sunday night's semifinal game. They take a school record 19-game winning streak, the nation's longest, into Tuesday's title game.
And if they win Tuesday, the Lady Bears just might want to thank Tennessee.
"That game showed us that we still had a lot of loose strings," guard Chelsea Whitaker said. "It showed us we could make it this far, we just had to get a little better and get a little more maturity. It gave us something to focus on and it got us where we are today."
On Saturday, Michigan State's players seemed oblivious to the Spartans historical connection to Indianapolis. Guards Lindsay Bowen and Kristin Haynie and center Kelli Roehrig all said they were unaware the Michigan State men had won their second national title in Indianapolis -- the last time a Final Four was played at the RCA Dome.
By Monday, it seemed like the Spartans had never forgotten.
"You definitely hope that karma is in your corner," guard Victoria Lucas-Perry said.
Michigan State's men's and women's teams have become good friends, challenging each other to bring home trophies. Haynie said that after beating Tennessee 68-64, Kelvin Torbert sent her a text message and an e-mail congratulating the Spartans and asking them to bring one more national title home to the school.
"There are great vibes for us in this town," Bowen said. "Our men have won a national championship here. ... We love this place."
Michigan State was the only school that had both a men's and women's team reach the Final Four this year.
They'll coach against each other in the NCAA championship game, but that's not the only thing Michigan State's Joanne P. McCallie and Mulkey-Robertson have in common.
Both are former college players. Both have rebuilt programs at or near the bottom of their respective conferences. Both are married with two children. And, both are animated on the sideline during games.
"Joanne will tell you that's her Italian culture," said Mulkey-Robertson. "That's what she told me the first time I talked to her. I said, 'I love your personality.' She said, 'Coach, I'm Italian, we talk with our hands.' Well, I don't know what I am, I need to go back home and check."
This is the fifth season at Michigan State for McCallie, who was named AP's coach of the year this season. Mulkey-Robertson, too, is in her fifth year at Baylor, where she resurrected a program that never made the NCAA tournament field before her arrival.
McCallie thinks the pair's similarly vigorous coaching styles have helped the quick turnarounds at both schools.
"You see the energy we put in our teams," she said. "I think that we have a responsibility. I think we're similar. I don't think either one of us have an ego. I don't think we care. So sometimes we'll act up a little bit or get feisty, whatever you want to call it. It's not about how we look, it's not the glamor coach approach."
Michigan State has now won five NCAA tournament games this year -- two more than it had won in its previous five appearances combined. ... A victory Tuesday would give the Spartans the distinction of tying the lowest ranked team in the preseason poll to win a national title. The Spartans were ranked No. 15 in the first poll. Texas Tech, which was ranked No. 15 in the 1992-93 preseason poll, was the only other school ranked that low to win the championship. ... Chelsea Whitaker needs five assists Tuesday night to break Baylor's career record, held by Toya Ellis (455). ... Baylor has won its five tournament games by an average of 14.2 points.
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