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Niemann's 3-spree aids Baylor's title run

INDIANAPOLIS -- Emily Niemann hadn't been on the court for more than a minute. But her contribution was immediate.

With Michigan State up 2-0, the Baylor sophomore followed up a steal with a 3-pointer at the 17:45 mark to give the Lady Bears a lead they would never relinquish. Two minutes later, she hit another shot from downtown. Before she was done, Niemann ended up hitting four straight 3-pointers as Baylor ran away from Michigan State, 84-62, in Tuesday's national championship game at the RCA Dome.

It's every basketball player's dream to come off the bench and make big plays in a big game. But to shoot 5-for-7 from beyond the arc in one half? To score 19 points, 10 more than your average?

"If you take No. 51 off the floor, it's definitely a different game," Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "She was the X-factor."

Indeed.

Prior to Tuesday's game, Niemann had been struggling offensively, connecting on only 15-of-40 of her NCAA Tournament career attempts. Though she played a key factor in Baylor's semifinal win, Niemann's 10 points against LSU had been her highest offensive output.

But on Tuesday, she became just the second player in NCAA title game history to hit at least five 3-pointers. Katy Stedman of Stanford holds the all-time record with six in the Cardinal's win over Auburn in the 1990 final.

"I was feeling good tonight," said Niemann, who hit her final trey with just eight seconds left in the first half to give Baylor a 37-25 lead. "As always, I don't have to say this just to say it, but my teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in great spots.

"Chelsea [Whitaker] hit a great screen for me to take it into the locker room for halftime, and they just do a great job of making things easy on me. When I can just catch and shoot, then I'm comfortable," she said.

Although the Lady Bears had pretty balanced scoring in their frontcourt with junior forward Sophia Young hitting a game-high 26 and senior center Steffanie Blackmon adding 22, both of those players were happy to share the wealth with Niemann. Her hot hand early on going got them going.

"That's big time," Blackmon said. "We needed that to spread the floor with their zone and everything. I told her to keep shooting and she kept knocking it down."

Added Young: "When Emily hit that first shot, I was like, 'Oh yeah, she's on,' you know? I was very excited that she came in. She knocked down those two big 3s for us and that just gave us a lot of momentum into the game. And we knew that she was going to be hot for the rest of the night, too."

Now that she has lived the dream, Niemann -- who had Bible verses [Psalms 115] written on her left arm -- just has to let it all sink in. First, she'll call her brother, Jeffrey, a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays who led Rice to the 2003 national baseball championship, and tell him about the 3-pointers and that she made the all-tournament team along with Blackmon and Young.

She might also mention that she held Michigan State's Kelli Roehrig to eight points and five rebounds.

"Great player, strong kid," Niemann said. "It took a lot out of me. My legs are dead and they'll probably be dead for at least two more weeks. I just tried as much as I could to body her up early and keep her from getting in the paint. She scored on me a lot anyway."

Yeah, Niemann did get burned a little bit, but she kept the faith and as a result now has a smile on her face as wide as the state of Texas -- one she's sure she'll be displaying for quite a while.

"It's so fun to be a part of this basketball team," Niemann said. "[Coming off the bench] was a role that I was given in the beginning in the year and I'm totally comfortable doing whatever I can to help my basketball team win. Tonight, that was scoring. My teammates, I love them to death. That's why we're here. We love each other."

Miki Turner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.