TAMPA, Fla. -- Everything about the first 29 minutes of the NCAA women's championship game said Baylor was going to win. The Lady Bears dominated in the paint, with their guards, in transition, making Notre Dame look a step slow and totally out of sync.
With 1:22 left in the third quarter, Lauren Cox fell to the court, clutching her left knee. Her teammates looked on, stunned. The arena fell silent.
"I wanted to cry," Chloe Jackson said.
"My head went blank," NaLyssa Smith said.
"Like a stab in the heart," DiDi Richards said. "It was like, 'What are we going to do?'"
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey went to check on Cox. She vowed the Bears would win the game for Cox. Meanwhile, assistant coach Bill Brock huddled the players together.
"He said, 'Guys this is basketball. It happens, but we're Baylor. And we're here in this moment right now. Let's go finish this game, let's go win this ball game,'" Moon Ursin said. "We just wanted to get it done for her."
Jackson did that when her driving layup with 3.9 seconds left helped give Baylor its third national championship. But the Lady Bears' 82-81 win over Notre Dame on Sunday night was as much about Cox as it was about how Baylor reacted, and how a grad transfer point guard kept a promise she made to all her teammates and became the Women's Final Four's most outstanding player.
"I couldn't come this far and then go home without the victory," Jackson said.
When Cox left the floor in a wheelchair, nobody knew the severity of her injury, or whether she would even come back to the bench. The entire game changed in that one moment.
Notre Dame, a second-half team throughout the tournament, looked emboldened and far more aggressive. The Fighting Irish went on a 13-5 run with eight points from Arike Ogunbowale to close the gap to three early in the fourth quarter.
Then, Notre Dame's Marina Mabrey got going from the 3-point line, hitting three straight to help tie the game at 74 with 5:18 to play. Two minutes later, Notre Dame had its first lead since the 8:20 mark of the first quarter.
"LC just has such an impact on the game -- when a player like that goes out, things are going to change, and we just had to figure it out," Ursin said. "They took advantage of that, and they made the best out of it when LC went out. We had to dig a little deeper. We had to figure out what to do, and we did down the stretch."
They did it not only thanks to Jackson, but thanks to Cox, who returned to the bench on crutches, with a knee brace on for the final five minutes. You could see her teammates' spirits lift when they saw her smiling.
"I needed to be there, to reassure them that I was OK and I'm still over here cheering for them," Cox said.
She told her teammates to keep believing they would win, but she also offered advice about plays to run. Cox noticed the play they kept running for Jackson was working.
After trading buckets and free throws, Jackson hit a jumper with 33.8 seconds left to put Baylor ahead. But Jessica Shepard was fouled and hit both her free throws, tying the game at 80.
Mulkey called the same exact play she called for Jackson in the semifinal against Oregon: Jackson took the ball, Richards hit a perfect screen and Jackson had a wide-open lane to the basket.
Her driving layup with 3.9 seconds remaining Sunday put Baylor ahead 82-80.
"I've never felt so valuable. That screen was something serious!" Richards said.
But there was no time to celebrate. Not surprisingly, Ogunbowale got the ball on the other end. The star of last year's Final Four has become such a clutch player in the fourth quarter, it almost felt like a given she would make something happen. She drew a foul and went to the line with 1.9 seconds remaining.
Ogunbowale is an 80 percent free throw shooter. She lives for pressure situations. As she stepped to the line, Jackson prayed, "Just let her miss one."
The first one missed. She tried to miss the second one, but it went in. Baylor successfully inbounded the ball, denying the Irish a chance to repeat as champions.
"The game didn't come down to that free throw," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
As the final buzzer sounded, Kalani Brown embraced Cox on the bench. The two post players have formed the backbone of Baylor's team, and the motto "Together to Tampa" was largely inspired to try to get Brown the championship in her senior season.
"I just told her, 'We did this for you,'" said Brown, who scored 20 points and had 13 rebounds. "When she went down, we got a little rattled. But we had to pull it together, pull it out for her."
Baylor would not have pulled it out without a career night from Jackson, who scored a season-high 26 points. It was only the third time all season she scored 20 or more points. Though she made the go-ahead layup against Oregon, Jackson had a tough shooting night against the Ducks and had just six points.
But that winning shot gave her much-needed confidence, and she vowed to be more aggressive against the Irish.
"Since 7 this morning, I kept saying, 'We're gonna win,' and Chloe's like, 'DiDi, I know we're going to win. I promise. I got it,'" Richards said. "We came in shootaround, she wasn't missing, and I knew she was feeling it."
A year ago, Jackson was not even a part of the Baylor team. She was in Ohio with her dad, watching the national championship game having already decided she would transfer from LSU. But she did not know yet where she would go and was considering Oregon, Baylor and Louisville among others.
"I had a dream, and that was it. I just had big goals, and I set out to accomplish it."
A week later, she decided she would play for Baylor because she believed Mulkey could get her to the championship that eluded her throughout her career.
But nothing came easy once she arrived at Baylor -- not when she was asked to switch from the 2-guard to play point guard. Mulkey was relentlessly on her, demanding perfection. Jackson took it all, and though Brown and Cox make the Bears' offense work, Jackson orchestrates it all.
"We're all glad she chose Baylor out of all the schools she could have went to," Juicy Landrum said.
As Baylor set up the ladder to begin cutting down the net in celebration, Cox's mother, Brenda, stood nearby: "I'm so happy for this team. All year long they've worked together and they deserve this. I feel sad for Lauren, but she'll be back. She's a fighter. She'll be back."
Cox was the first player up the ladder, taking one tentative step after the next.
"For us to win probably was a miracle in itself when you lose a player of that caliber," Mulkey said. "But from the time I left her on that floor to get to that huddle, I needed to regroup. I needed to make them understand, 'We're going to still win this basketball game.'"