NOTRE DAME — Seconds after the game clock expired, Odyssey Sims pulled Skylar Diggins aside while their teammates shook hands.
“I’ll see you in the Final Four,” the Baylor point guard told her Notre Dame counterpart.
Generous words from a player who isn’t keen on compliments, Diggins said of the exchange.
In a game hyped as a rematch of last year’s national championship game — complete with blue glo-sticks, a roaring crowd and a special appearance by rapper Lil’ Wayne — No. 3 Baylor (7-1) beat No. 5 Notre Dame (6-1) again, 73-61.
The contest featured a Baylor squad that returned all of its starters from its 40-0 championship season and a young Notre Dame team that lost all but two starters from its run at the title last year.
But seconds after the game ended, Smith saw what Diggins and Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw also saw: This Irish team has the potential to make its third consecutive Final Four appearance.
“There were so many teachable moments in this game,” McGraw said. “We’re still a young team, it’s early in the season and there are so many things that happened that I thought, you know, we haven’t really worked on that enough. We’re just going to get so much better.”
Early in the game, the Irish looked to have solved the Brittney Griner puzzle, double-teaming the 6-foot-8 post and holding her to four points in 16 minutes. Notre Dame also forced 20 turnovers from a team that only loses the ball an average of 5.7 times per game.
But Griner and Sims led a 22-7 run midway through the first half to take a halftime lead they relinquished just once. Griner came out of the post, dissolving the double-team, and Sims hit a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line to finish with 16 points.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said Sims’ 16-point, 6-assist performance was further proof that the junior is better than any point guard in the country — including Diggins.
“What else does she have to do to get that recognition?” Mulkey said of Sims. “She’s played Skylar four times and won every ball game. She’s won a national championship.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Irish.
Freshman guard Jewell Loyd had a breakout game in her debut on national television, leading the Irish with 24 points — including 4-of-5 from behind the arc — and seven rebounds.
On top of that, the Notre Dame crowd rallied behind its team the entire game. Fans treated every steal or rebound like it was a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“Other than the Tennessee game and a few conference games, we don’t have this kind of environment,” Mulkey said. “We have great crowds, but sometimes the teams aren’t as talented as Notre Dame is.”
But Diggins summed up Notre Dame’s loss rather bluntly: “I think we could have won with what we had out there if I could have made a freakin’ shot.”
Though she did finish an uncharacteristic 4-of-19 from the field for eight points (six points under her average), Diggins was hardly the only problem.
Notre Dame shot 35.7 percent — and just 31.4 percent in the first half — from the field.
While the Irish struggled to score, Griner broke away with a 24-point, 16-rebound performance to lead the Bears.
Like her coach and her rival point guard, Diggins sees a bright future for the Irish.
“It’s the beginning of December,” Diggins said. “I think this was a great game for us to play. It gave us confidence and to see that players like Jewell can step up and have the game she had.”
Kayla McBride finished with 18 points and five rebounds for the Irish, while Natalie Achonwa pitched in 11 points and seven rebounds.