Brittney Griner gets best of Tennessee
Despite subpar shooting, Baylor controls from start to finish as Tennessee struggles
Since the wishful "Plan A" of Baylor's opponents -- that center Brittney Griner wouldn't actually improve as a sophomore -- has already fallen through, they know they have to go with various alternate options.
And that none of them are likely to be resoundingly successful. Yet the key is not to win the battle against Griner. It's to win the war against Baylor. And to do that, you have to at least give Griner a battle.
Tuesday at a soldout Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, where the Baylor fans got just what they wanted for Christmas -- a Kim Mulkey bobblehead doll -- sixth-ranked Tennessee really wasn't able to effectively battle Griner. As a result, No. 3 Baylor came away with a 65-54 victory. It seemed eerily like Baylor did what Tennessee has done for so long to so many frustrated foes: hold them at arm's length.
Baylor didn't race away with the game, but never seemed in danger, either. An 11-0 run to close out the first half put Baylor up 34-21 at the break. For most of the second half, Baylor kept a double-digit lead, never getting too far ahead but also never letting it get truly uncomfortable. Even when Tennessee got to within nine points twice about midway through the half, there was not a genuine sense that the game might be slipping away from Baylor.
Griner wasn't the only problem for Tennessee; her 21 points didn't actually lead Baylor; Odyssey Sims' 24 did. But so many of Tennessee's woes were tied to Griner, one way or another, that it was impossible to separate what Baylor might have achieved even without her.
As it was, she didn't take a seat, playing all 40 minutes along with the exciting rookie Sims. But Griner wasn't just on the court the whole time, she was also in the Tennessee players' heads, or at least seemed to be. Which is understandable. Griner blocked nine shots, and teammate Brooklyn Pope rejected four more. It takes a lot of resolve to not let that much rejection get to you.
It's sort of like in tennis if you are facing a massive server you know is going to ace you a ton no matter how good your service return. The only effective way to deal with it is to accept that you're going to see the ball blaze past you plenty times, but keep hanging in there, undiscouraged, for the rare moments you can get a racket on it.
Unlike in tennis, though, where you can't avoid facing serve, Baylor foes can try to stay away from shooting against Griner. But that puts a huge load on their post players to be nimble and creative -- which Tennessee's weren't -- and on their perimeter players to make a lot of shots. And Vols coach Pat Summitt's crew didn't do that well, either.
Guard Meighan Simmons showed classic Tennessee moxie, leading the team with 22 points. She and Baylor's Sims, both freshmen from the Lone Star State, are gems. But like her teammates, Simmons wasn't sharp with her shot. She finished 6-of-21 from the field; as a team, Tennessee was 18-of-72 (25 percent). From 3-point range, Tennessee was 6-of-23 (26.1 percent).
Tennessee alarmists already might be pushing the panic button -- it doesn't take much to get them in that kind of shape, of course -- but there really are some credible reasons why this group might look different if it has to face Baylor come March/April.
The Orange interior game currently is more like black and blue. Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer are all dealing with/coming back from various ailments. Glory Johnson started the game as the only true post player with four guards/wings, and that meant Griner didn't have much size challenging her from the tip. There was nothing to rattle her confidence.
Combine that with lackluster-to-nonexistent execution for Tennessee on offense, possibly some weariness for the Lady Vols having just won at Texas on Sunday, and Baylor's high-energy players and crowd, and the final score -- along with the way the game "felt" -- were not surprising.
The point is not to find excuses for Tennessee; there's no doubt this team has plenty to improve if it's going to make a Final Four trip this season.
But the reality is that every team is going to have similar problems against Baylor if Mulkey's squad performs like this. And this wasn't even a great game by Baylor, which shot 35.7 percent from the field and was outrebounded by 10. Only five Baylor players scored.
Even so, Baylor looked in control from start to finish. And all the Mulkey bobbleheads were nodding in approval.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.