TAMPA, Fla. — Sabrina Ionescu appeared on the 28 feet by 50 feet scoreboard at Amalie Arena during a timeout in the third quarter of the national championship game as part of a pre-taped “floss cam” segment.
Next year, Oregon’s superstar and her teammates plan to finish the Big Dance on the court in the Big Easy.
For the second consecutive season, the Ducks were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by the last team standing.
Baylor, which escaped with a 72-67 victory against Oregon in the national semifinals on Friday, held on for a thrilling 82-81 triumph over defending champion Notre Dame in the NCAA title game on Sunday in front of a crowd of 20,127.
The top-seeded Bears (37-1), who won their last 29 games after suffering their only loss at Stanford on Dec. 15, continued their lucky-seven streak with their third championship (2005, 2012, 2019). Only UConn (11) and Tennessee (eight) have more titles since the women’s NCAA Tournament began in 1982.
“Notre Dame, do I even need to tell you how good they are?” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “They're the defending national champions, can score at all positions, play the zone against us. I don't think people thought we could score against the zone. We scored a lot of points.
“Just a great game for women's basketball.”
Arike Ogunbowale, who hit back-to-back game winners in last year’s Final Four, had a chance to tie the score at the foul line with 1.9 seconds remaining but missed her first free throw and made the second try that she was trying to miss to create a rebound opportunity.
“It's tough, said Ogunbowale, who finished with a game-high 31 points. “You can't really do anything about that one.”
Baylor had to regroup after blowing a 17-point lead and giving up a 24-12 run after standout forward Lauren Cox suffered a serious left knee injury with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter.
Chloe Jackson, who answered Satou Sabally’s tying 3-pointer with a driving layup to put Baylor back on top for good in the final minute against Oregon, was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player.
The senior guard gave the Bears an 82-80 lead with 3.9 seconds left and finished with 26 points, five assists and one turnover while playing all 40 minutes against Notre Dame.
“It was the same play we ran against Oregon,” Jackson said of her game-winner. “(Mulkey) told me just get to the basket.”
The Irish (35-4) — who beat Oregon in the Elite Eight en route to their title last year — made seven of their first nine shots in the second half, including a layup by Brianna Turner on a lob pass in transition by Ogunbowale, to get within 53-46.
Baylor, which was outscored 36-0 behind the arc by Oregon, led 60-46 after Juicy Landrum made the team’s first 3-pointer of the Final Four with 2:19 remaining in the third quarter.
Moments later, Cox went down and had to be taken off the floor in a wheelchair. She was able to return to cheer on her teammates in the fourth quarter and then carefully celebrated as the confetti fell.
"I'm emotional for a lot of reasons, but mostly for Lauren Cox,” Mulkey said. “I'm so happy. These are tears of joy, but they're also tears of thinking about injuries."
Ogunbowale knocked down a 3-pointer at the horn to cut Baylor’s advantage to 66-55.
Marina Mabrey made three 3-pointers during Notre Dame’s surge following Cox’s departure, including a deep ball to tie the score 74-74.
A free throw by Ogunbowale gave the Irish their first lead (77-76) with 3:18 remaining since an early 3-2 advantage.
“We had to do it for (Cox),” Jackson said. “She got us here. We had to finish the job for her."
Jackson was 5-for-5 from the field with 10 points in the first quarter as the Bears seized a 25-14 lead.
Notre Dame missed 15 of its first 16 shots and trailed 15-5, even though 6-foot-7 center Kalani Brown spent most of the sequence on the bench dealing with a leg cramp.
Brown returned to the floor and scored three consecutive buckets. The All-American finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
“It's definitely going to be hard leaving Baylor. But I left on a good note,” said Brown, who will be one of the top picks in Wednesday’s WNBA draft this week. “I just want to thank coach Mulkey for choosing me because this is the best thing ever.”
Jackson made a pull-up jumper to extend the Bears’ lead to 33-16 with 6:38 remaining in the second quarter.
“They punched us from the beginning, like almost everyone does, but they kept on punching,” said Mabrey, who finished with 21 points. “We finally punched back but it took too long. I think coming back took a lot out of us and I just think mentally we were not able to make that stop.
“Obviously, it’s hard to look at the big picture right now, but I know that us five seniors have done a lot for this program. We did bring a national championship — we should have brought two.“
Baylor also loses some legendary seniors in Jackson and Brown. Cox will be coming off a devastating injury.
Next year’s Final Four will be in New Orleans. With Ionescu returning for her senior season, Oregon likely will enter the 2019-20 season as the favorite to cut down the nets.