SOUTH BEND – A marquee matchup showcasing two of the top women’s basketball teams in the country was supposed to be the headliner Wednesday night in the Purcell Pavilion.
A surprise appearance by Lil Wayne ended up stealing the show though in the early-season showdown on national powers.
The famed rapper looked on from the front row as defending national champion Baylor sprinted past Notre Dame 73-61 in front of a sold-out crowd of 9,149 and a national television audience.
Brittney Griner, the reigning National Player of the Year, stood tall literally and figuratively as the No. 3 Bears topped the No. 5 Irish in a rematch of the national title game last April 3 which Baylor won 80-61.
The 6-8 Griner, one of five starters back from last year’s 40-0 team, powered in 24 points and had 14 rebounds as Baylor pulled away late to run its early-season mark to 7-1. Senior guard Odyssey Sims tallied 16 points, Brooklyn Pope 14 in a huge effort off the bench and Jordan Madden 12 for the Bears.
Baylor senior Destiny Williams, who played her high school ball at Benton Harbor, had two points. The 6-1 forward, who leads Baylor in rebounding, snared 10 caroms.
Freshman Jewell Loyd netted 24 points, including draining 4-of-5 treys, to pace the Irish, who fall to 5-1. Junior Kayla McBride had 18 points and 6-3 junior Natalie Achonwa 11 for Notre Dame.
Irish All-American Skylar Diggins struggled with her shot. The senior hometown hero guard from South Bend Washington High School scored eight points on 4-of-19 shooting. The southpaw, who was averaging 14 points-per-game, did have seven assists and four steals.
Lil Wayne, who strolled into the arena at halftime, has a history with Diggins. The rapper has tweeted about the Irish star in the past and even donned a No. 4 Irish Diggins’ jersey back in 2011 while performing in Bloomington at IU during Little 500 festivities.
Celebrities aside, chalk this one up to experience.
Baylor simply made the key plays down the stretch to pull away from the Irish, who lost for the first time. The Bears used a key 10-0 run late in the game to turn a 52-52 deadlock into a 62-52 advantage to take control with just 4:17 to play. Sims, who had missed the last four games due to a hamstring injury, scored six key points in the run.
“Here is the best point guard in the country,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey pointing to Sims, who was seated next to her in the post game interview session. “She’s 4-0 versus Skylar and has a national championship. What does she have to do to get that recognition?”
Sims, a 5-8 junior, downplayed her matchup with Diggins as the pair of stellar southpaws went head-to-head for most of the 40 minutes.
“I always enjoy playing against Skylar,” said Sims, who was 10-of-10 from the line and had six assists, but also seven turnovers. “There’s no rivalry. It’s just two great players versus each other. The thing tonight is that we pulled together.”
Baylor has bounced back after seeing its 42-game win streak snapped with a 71-69 loss to Stanford on Nov. 16. All-American Sims was injured less than five minutes into that contest and had not played since.
“Our schedule is my best coach this year,” Mulkey said. “It keeps us hungry and humble and will get us better.”
The Irish got off to a good start by bolting to a 20-11 lead as Loyd led the way. Baylor answered with a 20-5 run to take a 31-25 lead before settling for a 33-27 advantage at intermission. Pope scored 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting off the Baylor bench as the Bears hit 15-of-27 shots in the opening half to offset 11 turnovers. Loyd was 6-of-12 from the floor, including 3-of-3 from deep, to net 15 first-half points. The Irish as a team, however, were just 11-of-35 from the field in the first 20 minutes.
Notre Dame, which surrounded Griner with multiple players at every turn, opened the second half strong again. The hosts used a 13-6 run to take a 40-39 lead on a jumper by Achonwa with 13:03 to play. Baylor answered with six quick points on a pair of jumpers by Griner and a layup by Madden after an Irish turnover to retake the lead and force Irish coach Muffet McGraw to take a timeout. The game was tight until the Bears took the lead for good with 6:58 left on a layup by Madden to make it 54-52.
“Brooklyn Pope has had a phenomenal game every time we’ve played Notre Dame and did again tonight,” said Mulkey. “I don’t know what it is. We just persevered. We had to weather the storm early down nine.”
McGraw, who has two starters back from last year’s squad, saw plenty to like despite the loss. The Irish boss, who has won 596 games in her 26th season in South Bend, also celebrated her 57th birthday Wednesday.
“We have a lot of good things to build on from this,” McGraw said. “We played much better tonight than the last time we played them. Maybe we learned that we are better than we think. We can play with that team.
“There were so many teachable moments from this game that will only help us. We’re going to get so much better. We have a ways to go, but Jewell was outstanding tonight. I thought defensively we did a good job. We guarded her (Griner) real well and played smart. Offensively, we’re still a work in progress.”
Baylor shot 29-of-59 from the field and hit 14-of-15 from the free throw line. The Irish, who had just four players score, finished 25-of-70 from the field. The Bears had a 36-26 edge in points in the paint, a 10-4 advantage in fast break points and a key 14-0 margin in bench points thanks to Pope.
Diggins, for her part, was not pleased with her own performance.
“I have to make shots,” said the ultra-competitive Diggins simply, not hiding any of her anger in the post game. “We could have won this game with the team we had on the court if I had just made a frickin’ shot.
“They just were not falling. I was taking them like I always do. But, this should give us a lot of confidence. We have a lot of time to get better. Jewell is just a ball player. She’s not a freshman.”
Diggins also weighed in when asked about her personal fan Lil Wayne being in the front row.
“It was a surprise,” said Diggins, who went over to greet the rapper with a handshake during a break in play in the second half. “It’s great for our sport. Anything that can draw attention to women’s basketball is great.”
Diggins, who has led the Irish to back-to-back national title game appearances the last two seasons, also shared something Sims had to say following the hard-fought game.
“Odyssey grabbed me in the line after the game and said see you at the Final Four,” related Diggins.
If it happens, expect Diggins to be a show stopper the next time around, with or without Lil Wayne in the crowd.