This NCAA tournament had plenty of twists, turns and upsets even before the championship game. Coach Gary Blair and Texas A&M delivered a thrilling ending.
This was the supposed to be the year Maya Moore’s Connecticut juggernaut won its third straight title or Stanford broke through or Tennessee got back to the top.
Instead, the Aggies rewrote the script in their first Final Four appearance. They made the 65-year-old Blair the oldest coach to win a national championship just one night after UConn’s 68-year-old Jim Calhoun did the same thing on the men’s side.
“We gave you that national championship game without the so-called powers of the world,” Blair said. “The two powers tonight were the two that earned it.”
Danielle Adams scored 22 of her 30 points in a dominating second half Tuesday night to help the Aggies beat Notre Dame 76-70 and bring the women’s title back to College Station and the former all-male military academy.
“I had a little voice in my head, ‘Don’t let this team down,'” said Adams, who became the school’s first All-American a week ago and was picked as the outstanding player of the tournament.
“Every time we’d get down, we were telling each other we’re not going to lose this game. We worked hard all season to prepare for this point. I had to do this for my teammates. They’ve been doing everything for me. I decided to take them on my back and just let them ride on my back.”
Tyra White added 18 points for A&M, including a huge 3-pointer as the shot clock buzzer sounded to put the Aggies up 73-68 with 1:07 left.
“That was the knife in my heart. That was the game,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said, bowing her head when the question was asked. “I thought that was just an amazing play on White’s part, and that play was the game.”
Adams and her teammates then staved off a final, frantic push by the Irish and their sensational young point guard, Skylar Diggins.
Now the Aggies (33-5) are national champs, newcomers who bullied their way through the tournament to win it all. Like Notre Dame, they vanquished their conference rival on the way, beating Baylor in the Dallas regional final after losing to the Lady Bears three times during the season.
Adams, who struggled badly against Baylor, was up to the task and then some against Notre Dame, scoring the second-most points ever in a championship game (Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes had 47 against Ohio State in 1993).
Both teams reached the championship by knocking off two No. 1 seeds. Notre Dame ended an 0-20 skid against Tennessee, then swept past Connecticut in the semifinals — the first time one team has taken down those two women’s basketball icons in the same tournament. After A&M dumped Baylor, the Aggies knocked out Stanford in a bruising national semifinal.
It wound up being the first title game without a No. 1 seed since 1994 and only the second overall. It also was the first final without either Connecticut or Tennessee since Maryland beat Duke in overtime for the 2006 championship.
And it turned out to be a good one.
“I thought it was probably not so entertaining from my point of view,” McGraw said. “I think from the fan’s point of view, it was probably a pretty entertaining game.”
After a back-and-forth first half, and with the Aggies trailing 48-43 early in the second half, Adams simply took over — urged on by her coach to “quit shooting the jump shot.”
The 6-foot-1 center scored 10 of the next 13 points for the Aggies to give them a 56-53 lead midway through the second half. Texas A&M then extended the advantage to 64-57 behind the two Sydneys: Carter and Colson.
Notre Dame wouldn’t give up, battling back behind Diggins and Devereaux Peters. The Irish scored nine of the next 11 points to tie the game at 66 on Diggins’ jumper with 3:56 left.
Blair went right to Adams on the next two possessions and she delivered, hitting back-to-back layups and wearing out the Irish by hitting her first eight shots of the half and finishing 9 of 11.
Peters’ putback cut it to 70-68, but White hit her big 3 — her second game-saving shot of the tournament after her layup lifted the Aggies over Stanford on Sunday. Diggins had two free throws with 40.7 seconds left, and McGraw called her final timeout only to see her young star turn it over in front of the bench. White hit two free throws to seal the win.
Diggins finished with 23 points and Peters added 21 and 11 rebounds for Notre Dame (31-8). Diggins, fighting back tears, said the Irish couldn’t handle A&M’s pressure.
“We turned it over too much. I don’t know if it was nerves or what,” she said. “We just didn’t handle the pressure.”
Indeed, the night belonged to the Aggies in a game played just a few hours’ drive from the Notre Dame campus in South Bend.
The championship is the first in a major sport for Texas A&M since the football team won it all back in 1939. And it comes at a school that didn’t even admit women until 1963, and where school administrators didn’t always see the advantage of funding men’s and women’s sports equally when Title IX passed in 1972.
By 1994, A&M had earned its first NCAA tournament bid and immediately reached the regional semifinals. Still, things slowed until Blair arrived in 2003.
The man with the sharp tongue, quick wit and deep Southern drawl found himself at home recruiting Texas’ best players, and teaming with others in the athletic department to sell the school.
Winning the title will certainly help.
“Me and my team couldn’t let our seniors (Colson and Adams) leave without winning a national championship,” White said. “We had to send them off in the right way, and, baby, we sure did.”
The Aggies rode a relentless defense that didn’t allow more than 50 points in the tournament until Stanford scored 62 in the semifinals.
The Irish were trying to become the first team to capture the title in their home state since Stanford won in Los Angeles in 1992. There definitely was a home feel for Notre Dame with two-thirds of the 17,473 people in the arena wearing green and gold, hoping for the school’s first championship since 2001.
At least Diggins will be back next season.
“You lose that last game, you just get motivated to come back and work a little bit harder and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” McGraw said. “So I think it will be a really good motivator for us.”