Posted: Tuesday April 5, 2005 11:25AM; Updated: Tuesday April 5, 2005 11:25AM
Baylor's All-America Sophia Young could be the difference in tonight's game.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The text messages come in waves but the saying is constant: "How are we here?"
For Baylor guard Chelsea Whitaker and her teammates, it's a wireless reminder to stay humble on the eve of the first national championship appearance in school history. "We text message each other and then as soon as we get on the court at practice, we say it again: We cannot believe we are here," says Whitaker. "I think that disbelief is helping us play calm. We're appreciative of this and humble of it, not coming off as big dogs. And that humbling mentality has helped us play the way we have."
Of course, Baylor has become one of the big dogs of women's college basketball this season. They have a Kodak All-America forward (junior Sophia Young), a fellow All-America-caliber player in the post (senior Steffanie Blackmon) and a young coaching star (Kim Mulkey-Robertson). Most importantly, they are the hottest team in the country with 19 consecutive victories, including a save-this-for-the-time-capsule 15-point come-from-behind victory over top-ranked LSU in the semifinals.
If Baylor was facing an opponent other than Michigan State in the championship, this game would not be close. But the Spartans have conducted their own fairy tale run this season. They humbled UConn at Hartford, defeated Notre Dame at South Bend after trailing by six with 30 seconds left, and topped the Lady Bears' remarkable comeback with one of their own, overcoming the largest deficit in Final Four history when they defeated Tennessee after trailing by 16 points. These two teams have plenty of similarities outside of epic comebacks and charismatic coaches: Each plays with the composure of a cat burglar under fire and has shown a remarkable ability to beat ranked opponents on the road. Both teams were nowhere five years ago: Baylor was the worst team in the Big 12 and Michigan State finished 10-18 and ninth in the Big Ten.
Like Jackson Pollock, Baylor enjoys things in the paint. The priority is feeding Young and Blackmon in the post -- and crashing the offensive boards. "She can put it on the floor and separate herself from the defense," said LSU assistant coach Bob Starkey of Young, who has averaged an NCAA tournament-high 22.4 points. "She's very quick without the ball and very quick with the ball, which is rare for a post player." Even though Baylor has good perimeter shooters, they must score in the paint to be effective. Baylor sophomore forward Emily Niemann is the X-factor because she's a big player with a perimeter game. The Spartans must watch her and sophomore forward Abiola Wabara closely. Along with suffocating defense -- she slowed down LSU's Seimone Augustus in the semifinals -- Wabara averages 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 24.8 minutes. The Spartans will try to prevent Baylor from getting easy passes into the post, which means you'll see plenty of ball pressure on Whitaker and fellow guard Chameka Scott.
Then there is Michigan State, a team without a Kodak All-America but with more flash than you think. They have a do-it-all point guard (senior Kristin Haynie), a terrific outside shooter (junior guard Lindsay Bowen), and brawn in the post with 6-foot-4 senior center Kelli Roehrig and underrated junior forward Liz Shimek. "They don't back down from anybody," said Scott. "That's what caught my eye." Wabara ("They're probably not as athletic as we are") and Blackmon ("You know, they're not athletic but they are definitely hard workers") failed to give the Spartans dap Monday for their athleticism. Be careful. Haynie and Bowen are quicker than advertised. Just ask Notre Dame and UConn.