TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Lauren Cox hobbled around the bench, moving as quickly as her injured left knee would allow. The tears on her face had dried, crushing disappointment overshadowed by anxiety during a tense finish to the national championship game.
Chloe Jackson’s layup went in, Arike Ogunbowale’s foul shot bounced out, and Cox stood on crutches at the end of the bench, pumping her right arm as the final second ticked off.
Cox was taken off the court in a wheelchair during the third quarter of the title game Sunday night but returned to the bench and provided an emotional lift during the final minutes of the Lady Bears’ 82-81 victory over Notre Dame.
“It was tough when I went down for my team,” said Cox, wearing a brace on her knee after what appeared to be a severe injury. “I’m super proud of everyone that stepped up tonight.”
The Lady Bears, seeking their third national title, led 62-50 with 1:22 remaining when Cox was injured. The 6-foot-4 forward fell to the floor clutching her knee under the Notre Dame basket after getting tangled up with teammate Kalani Brown.
Nalyssa Smith, who scored 14 points in 17 minutes overall, entered for Cox and said the team wanted “to play for her.”
“Seeing her on the bench and not on the floor was very frustrating to us,” Baylor guard Juicy Landrum said. “But she just went into the huddle and she told us, ‘You all got this, you got all this.’ It lifted us.”
Baylor led by 17 in the second quarter but Notre Dame battled back and tied it in the fourth. The Bears pulled it out when Jackson hit a tiebreaking layup with 3.9 seconds left and Ogunbowale missed the first of two free throws on the other end for Notre Dame.
Moments later, Cox - with a little assistance - was the first Baylor player to cut off a piece of netting from beneath the rim. She was also the first to hoist the championship trophy.
“It’s really special,” Cox said. “A great experience that not many people get to be a part of. Just to be able to get up there and cut down my piece, it was amazing.”
After the horn sounded and the celebration began at midcourt, Baylor players ran back to the bench area to encircle Cox.
“She’s our leader,” Jackson said. “She’s the reason why we’re here. We had to come together as a family.”
Cox was in tears on the court, and her parents were emotional in the stands after the injury took place. Her father buried his head in his hands, and her mother cried.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said Cox is not expected to be ready for the start of next season.
Cox and her mother hugged for a full minute, both in tears, during the postgame celebration.
“That kid, if she didn’t get hurt, would have been the No. 1 probably pick in the (WNBA) draft next year,” Mulkey said. “That’s how good she is. And she will be back, I promise you that. It may take her a year. We’ll rest her, do whatever.”
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