Baylor’s title win caps exciting women’s basketball season

Baylor and Notre Dame capped the women’s college basketball season with a thrilling championship game.

The sport now has had a different champion in the past four years, with the Lady Bears edging the Irish 82-81 on Sunday night to win their third title. It’s only the second time in the past two decades that there have been that many teams claiming the title.

“Just a great game for women’s basketball,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said.

The 11-point combined difference for the three games in the Final Four was the closest in the history of the tournament, topping last season’s 15-point margin. More than 40,000 fans attended the Final Four games, which was the most since 2010. Overall, nearly 275,000 fans attended the entire tournament, which ranks eighth all-time, including 20,127 for the title game. It was the highest attendance in over 15 years for the NCAAs.

“We’ve had a really great championship. Our first- and second-round numbers (are) the best we’ve seen in 11 years,” NCAA vice president for women’s basketball Lynn Holzman said.

The title game also attracted viewers, with ratings up 11% from last year. The semifinals and title game combined were up 8% from last season.

“The anticipation for the Final Four games this year was the best I can remember in the 24 years I’ve covered the games on Westwood One,” analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “Strategies, completion and skill (are) growing and the fans are the greatest winners.”

There were a number of competitive games throughout the tournament, including Sunday night’s title matchup. During the regular season, three different teams held the No. 1 spot in the poll, including Baylor, which was the most since 2012.

Though 12 of the 15 players on the AP All-America teams will not be returning, the future is still bright, with several top players coming back.

Oregon junior Sabrina Ionescu, who is from Walnut Creek, announced Saturday night that she would return for her senior season rather than become a top draft pick in the WNBA.

Baylor forward Lauren Cox will be back at some point next year. She injured her left knee in the title game in the third quarter. Mulkey made it sound like Cox could miss at least some of next season because of the injury.

“That kid, if she didn’t get hurt, and she will be back, God works in mysterious ways, would have been the No. 1 probably pick in the draft next year,” Mulkey said. “That kid probably would have been defensive player of the year nationally next year. That’s how good she is.

“And she will be back, I promise you that. It may take her a year. We’ll rest her, do whatever.”

Young turning pro: Notre Dame guard Jackie Young will skip her senior season and enter the WNBA draft. She announced her decision on Twitter on Monday night.

The junior is eligible to go pro because she will turn 22 before the end of the calendar year. She’ll join the other four Irish starters in this year’s draft class. Seniors Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Brianna Turner and Marina Mabrey are all expected to be selected Wednesday night.

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