Posted: Monday April 4, 2005 1:58AM; Updated: Monday April 4, 2005 2:06AM
By Richard Deitsch, SI.com
ONE SHINING MOMENT
Abiola Wabara's defense against LSU's Seimone Augustus proved pivotal in Baylor's drive to the title game.
Credit Baylor's Truett Seminary for a truly divine win.
Sophomore forward Abiola Wabara, whose chest-to-chest defense of Seimone Augustus was one of the keys to the Lady Bears victory, ended up at Baylor thanks to her aunt Phoebe, who e-mailed Baylor assistant coach Johnny Derrick about her basketball-playing niece while she was a doctoral student at Baylor. Then, when the 6-foot Wabara came to Waco for a visit, she stopped by the Baylor office.
"I looked at her hands, I looked at her body and I got her information, but I couldn't try her out because it was against NCAA rules," said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson. "So I called Janice Lawrence Braxton, a former teammate of mine at Louisiana Tech who played 15 years of pro ball in Italy. I asked if she knew about her and what she thought I should do. She said, 'Sign her."
So Mulkey-Robertson did, and now she'll play for a national championship. After playing just six minutes in the first game against LSU on Nov. 14, Wabara scored 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting Sunday night and hit the biggest shot of the game. With the score tied at 51-51 with 4:44 left, Wabara scored on a driving layup and was fouled by LSU's Wendlyn Jones. Her free throw extended the lead to 54-51. Baylor never trailed again.
PLAYER WHO IMPRESSED ME
Well, Wabara for starters. Asked what was different about this game, Wabara didn't hesitate.
"Well, I played," she said.
She battled LSU star Augustus for 40 minutes and played her as tough as anyone ever has. Augustus missed her first three shots and was held scoreless for the first 9:57 of the game. She finished with 22 hard-earned points on 10-of-26 shooting.
"Coach told me to keep her below 30 so I guess I did that," said Wabara, who at 23 is the oldest player on the team.
How did she approach the assignment of guarding the nation's best player?
"You are just trying to keep her away from her usual game," she said. "Usually she drives to the basket. She couldn't do that against me and that was getting [her] frustrated. I think I kept her away from what she wanted to do on offense. A couple of times she tried to cross me over but she turned the ball over because my hand was there. I think she got frustrated."
You don't need to be born in the Bayou to see the comparisons between LSU freshman center Sylvia Fowles and former Tiger great Shaquille O'Neal. Both are huge. Both play center. And both disrupt games with their size. Plus, Fowles is from Miami. She finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 33 minutes. When her footwork improves, she'll be the best inside player in the college game.
Baylor sophomore forward Emily Niemann has plenty of old school in her. She scored her 14 points on a variety of shots including a mini-sky hook, and she understands how to move without the ball. Intelligent player.
The uber-boisterous Baylor fans had "FINISH THE JOB" signs everywhere at the RCA Dome and were chanting "Tennessee, Tennessee" after the game... Mulkey-Robertson is the first woman to win a national championship as a player, and coach in the title game. She won four Louisiana state titles at Hammond High School and played in four Final Fours at Louisiana Tech, winning two national championships. Her career record as a head coach is 130-38. ... This was the third Final Four and the first since 1997 where every head coach was a women. This year also marked the first time in NCAA history where all eight coaches in the Elite Eight were women. ... What's next for Augustus? "I think each year she has gotten physically stronger," says LSU coach Pokey Chatman. "A lot of people talk about her ability to shoot the 3. Seimone is such a cerebral basketball player that she can shoot the 3 but she's going to take the highest percentage shot. She can take people off the dribble but she doesn't have to all the time. She's really good about conserving energy. I think a lot of it is going to be the natural maturation of her body, just getting bigger and stronger." Augustus has scored in double figures in 62 straight games.
Composure will be the story of the national championship. Both Baylor and Michigan State have it in droves.
Baylor star forward Sophia Young said her team knew it could come back because of the previous game when it trailed by 19 at halftime. This was a game of runs, perhaps not surprising for the two most athletic teams in the nation.
Baylor had trouble running its offense early -- senior center Steffanie Blackmon was invisible most of the game and scored just seven points in 25 minutes.
LSU went on a 17-2 run in the middle of the first half that was breathtaking. It concluded when guard Scholanda Houston's 3-pointer lifted the Lady Tigers to a 24-9 lead with 7:42 left in the first half.
Said Mulkey-Robertson: "You get down 15 and I'm looking at my coaches going, 'We're getting embarassed on national television' I challenged my players and once again what warriors they are. This is something else."
That something was the second greatest comeback in Final Four history (topped only by Michigan State in the following game). The Lady Bears went on a 19-4 run to end the half, capped by a layup from point guard's Chelsea Whitaker to tie the score at 28-28 at the break.
Baylor used plenty of zone in the second half to negate the effective of Johnson driving to the hoop and the play of Fowles inside. They outscored LSU 32-24 in points in the paint, a direct result of Wabara forcing Augustus to settle for outside shots.
The last team to win a national championship in its first trip to the Final Four was North Carolina in 1994. They'll be a second one Tuesday night.