- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Day by day and game by game, Brittney Griner is getting there. Whether the rest of us have ever glimpsed where "there" is remains up for debate.
Wherever it is, Baylor will gladly follow. It worked out well enough for the No. 19 Lady Bears in Monday's 65-63 win at No. 15 Texas A&M.
"She's the best freshman I've ever played against, and that includes some doggone pretty good ones," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said of a career that spans more than three decades as an assistant and head coach in the college game. "And I'm not going to take any one thing away from Lisa Leslie and Cheryl Miller and some of the great ones that were great as freshmen, and the Candace Parkers, but this kid is changing the game. Those other kids were adding to the game because of their talent and how they handled the ball. This kid is changing the game."
Blair was talking about the sport as a whole, but it was equally true for the game defined by 40 minutes Monday night. Griner finished with 22 points, her third-best mark in Big 12 conference play, and set career highs with 21 rebounds and four assists.
She blocked "only" four shots, still enough to move her into second all-time at Baylor before she has even completed a single season, but altered countless others. There's no stat for Texas A&M star Tanisha Smith making a picture-perfect backdoor cut on the baseline only to pull up like a driver spotting a speed trap when she spotted Griner, then reversing the ball for an eventual long missed jump shot by Sydney Carter. But it still happens.
And when Baylor needed her most, Griner came through with a bit of everything that makes her special.
Playing the Randy Moss role in what amounted to a basketball fade route, the 6-foot-8 freshman reached over the head of Aggies forward Damitria Buchanan to pull in a lob pass and score what turned out to be the winning basket with 15 seconds left. Then she picked up a defensive rebound on the other end, and after proving mortal by missing a free throw, she loomed large in the rearview mirror on Texas A&M guard Sydney Carter's last mad dash toward a would-be tying basket -- a miss Griner collected for her final rebound as time expired.
"Brittney Griner, late in the game, when she got touches -- we all know she has a good shot, but she made powerful moves to the glass," Mulkey said. "When she missed, she got her own misses. And that's just something that, gosh, we needed at that time."
On Baylor's first possession of the game, Griner took a pass a few steps up the court from the block, felt the defender on her back and hit a turnaround jumper. Given the altitude she occupies when she rises, it was an impossible shot to stop and showed how soft a touch she owns, but it was also indicative of how Griner played in the post for much of the first half, going straight up but rarely carrying momentum toward the basket as she made her move.
As Mulkey noted, that changed in the second half. Time and again, Griner went right at the rim -- a phrase often out of place in the women's game but entirely accurate in this case. With each lean you could almost see her game evolve to a place that will cost opposing coaches sleep in the years to come.
"I can't even explain to you guys really how much the kid has grown over the course of the season, especially now that it's getting late and down in crunch time," Baylor senior Morghan Medlock said. "Her conditioning is so much better, her will to want the ball and be that big-time player that we all expect her to be. It's just incredible when you have a kid with her ability and her athleticism who wants the ball at the end like she did. And we can't just compliment her enough for as much as she's taken in from everybody."
And the everybody in this case is part of the story. That's particularly the case for Medlock, who earned special praise from her coach for the second game in a row and finished a rebound shy of a double-double with 14 points and nine rebounds. She gave Griner cover in the post and burned the Aggies when they devoted too much attention to the freshman's side of the paint -- often on passes from junior point guard Kelli Griffin, who finished with nine assists, three steals and eight key first-half points.
After a loss at Baylor on Saturday, Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke said that as long as the Lady Bears are without injured standout Melissa Jones, opponents have to do what they can with Griner and make the rest of her teammates finish the job. Against both Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, the latter a rare conference road win, Griner's teammates did that.
"Griner's not the one that beat us," Blair said. "We let Medlock get hers on the back side over there, some easy stuff over there. She hurt us last year that we played them here. Griffin -- those are the two kids that hurt us. We did as good as we could on Griner; give her her kudos."
Yet it said something that a coach like Blair, who is willing to speak his mind, could offer that line and sincerely mean it about someone who put up 22 points, 21 rebounds, four blocks and four assists. It takes someone special to a degree heretofore unseen to make that something other than a defining line.
Late in the first half, in response to what he perceived as a soft foul call on Texas A&M's Kelsey Assarian as she guarded Griner, one particularly petulant Texas A&M fan loudly and sarcastically moaned, "Oh no, she touched the Chosen One."
But the truth is nobody chose Griner as the one to change the sport; she has earned that distinction all on her own. And if Monday night is any indication, she's getting closer and closer to taking it there. Wherever "there" turns out to be.
"She lives with pressure," Mulkey said. "You think through the years how many freshmen, or any players, period, that have to see what she sees night in and night out defensively. She never loses her composure, she never changes her expression; she's the most pleasant kid to watch play. And she just gets beat up -- two coming at her, three coming at her, and she just stays in there.
"You're just watching something that you may never see again in your life and you better remember she's just a freshman."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.