Oklahoma City, OK -- Sitting in the Chesapeake Energy Arena waiting for No. 4 ranked Baylor and No.6 ranked Texas to tip off in the Big 12 championship game felt a little like déjà vu, and then I remembered that was because this was an exact rematch of the championship game from just a year ago.
I don't know if anyone was exactly surprised to see the chips fall this way, with the top two seeds facing off for the crown, but the Longhorns ultimately could not dethrone the champs, falling in a hard-fought battle.
"Baylor has the ability to kind of force you to be uncomfortable offensively and force you to do some things that are uncharacteristic, and they've been doing this all year long," said Texas coach Karen Aston. "So credit to their defense, which I think turns into offense for them.
"I had hoped that we would be more competitive on every possession in this game, and I thought that we were for a longer period of time. But they were the better team tonight."
The anticipation mounted in the room to see these great athletes compete, one team defending their title and the other looking to avenge their loss from a year ago. Then it was time for the tip, and away we went.
True to form, the Lady Bears sprinted out on an 8-3 run, firing on all cylinders like we have come to expect from them during this tournament. They utilized the post presence of Beatrice Mompremier to get easy buckets down low, made open threes and easy jumpers in transition.
And they played disruptive defense -- especially on the part of Mompremier, protecting the rim and sending an attempt by Celina Rodrigo flying towards the sideline. All of this happened within the first five minutes of play.
Then all of a sudden Baylor turns the ball over a couple of times, Texas scores on three straight possessions, and we've got ourselves a game. The first quarter ended at 16-13 Lady Bears.
Brooke McCarty played like a true point-guard acting as the general for her team, making plays on defense and going 100% from the field in the first half. They did what you have to do to stick with Baylor, match their pace, don't let them wear you down and affect your offensive composure and bring it right back at them on defense. You cannot slack off on Baylor for one second because they are always attacking and do not miss many open shots.
But then Texas did another thing you cannot do against Baylor, go on a four-minute drought. This prompted a 10-0 run by the Lady Bears and allowed Nina Davis and Alexis Jones to get hot, ending the half on a triple by Jones to an eruption from the crowd as Baylor finished up 36-25. The Lady Bears outscored the Longhorns 24-14 in the paint in the first half.
Jones, Davis, and Mompremier came out guns blazing to start the third and quickly took the lead to 15 points. Every time Texas would try to claw their way back, the Lady Bears kept up their relentless attack and answered. They were down by as much as 21 in the third, but a quick transition lay-up at the buzzer by the Longhorns' Lashann Higgs brought the close-out of the quarter to 60-43 Baylor.
The crowd really got active in the fourth, both sides passionately screaming for their team and contesting anything the refs were calling. Texas played for pride, and if you weren't checking the scoreboard, you wouldn't have known the point differential was so great.
They just never could get over the hump and cut into that lead built early on in the game. A bank-in shot from almost half court by Niya Johnson, Steph Curry style, with 2 minutes to go virtually sealed the deal for the Lady Bears and got the fans up and out of their seats, awaiting the buzzer to sound and their team to be proclaimed champs. The final score was 79-63 Baylor.
The Lady Bears ended the game with four players in double figures. Nina Davis was the absolute standout with 22 points and 5 boards. Alexis Jones added 16 points and 8 assists, Mompremier knocked down 15 points and 9 rebounds, and Johnson brought in 11 points and 7 rebounds.
Jones was named Most Outstanding Player, and Head Coach Kim Mulkey has plenty of praise for her star.
"I don't know if you saw me when she came off the floor," said Mulkey. I made sure I grabbed her and that's pretty much -- just watching a kid fight through knee injuries, sit out a year, play for a new coach, new system, great players around her, try to fit in, trying to find her way, but yet at the same time understand, my God, she is so talented."
Lashann Higgs finished with 15 points, and Imani Bolete added 9 points and 11 boards for the Longhorns. They will head back South and prepare for the NCAA tournament.
It was a sea of gold and green to end the night, confetti flying and the team celebrating, outfitted in new championship t-shirts as their fight song played. With this big win, they will lock up a No. 1 seed just in time for March Madness.
Nina Davis talked about how important that was to them and the advantage playing close to home will bring in the first two rounds of the tournament: "It feels great. That's why we wanted to win this tournament to make sure that we ensured that we would be a number 1 seed and be in the Dallas Regional, and we have one of the best fan bases in the country.
"And to know, that we will get to play the first two rounds in Waco, and our fans will be able to travel down the street with us, that's going to be a great feeling. And home court is always something that helps you."
There will be plenty of folks across the country hoping they will be the competitor that can knock off the mighty UCONN this year. If they play the way they did this week, they just might.