Griner unstoppable in Big 12 final
Saturday performance proves what we already knew: Baylor is a NCAA contender
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There was a moment in the first half of the Big 12 title game Saturday when you figured Baylor made a mistake that Brittney Griner could only do so much to fix.
You figured wrong, though.
Baylor got off to a rough start against Texas A&M in this, the third meeting of the season between the Big 12's two best teams. The Lady Bears had won the first two games, but trailed 12-0 about five minutes into Saturday's final.
Still, they didn't look rattled. Or even all that annoyed or concerned. Their first points came at the 15:09 mark, and nine minutes later, they'd rallied all the way to take the lead.
Then about three minutes before halftime with the score tied, came the aforementioned mistake. Griner caught a long pass. Too long. She was too far under the basket to score, didn't appear to have any angle at a shot, and needed to dump the ball off before she was pinned on the baseline by swarming defenders.
Or at least it sure looked as if she couldn't score. She'd already prevented a turnover just by snaring the pass. Now, she just needed to get the ball to a teammate and perhaps reset the offense.
Except that's not the fix she went for. Instead, displaying improved footwork and her vast wingspan, Griner was able to take a big step and flip the ball backward at the right angle to score.
"I gotta go back and look at that," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "That's got to be top-10 play material."
And it didn't even look like a "lucky" shot. It was a matter of having the size, skill, athleticism and creativity to know how to score even when she appeared completely out of position to do so.
That one play was the most jaw-dropping, but it was just among many that Griner made Saturday to lead Baylor to the program's third Big 12 tournament title, her first.
Griner finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks as she went all 40 minutes for Baylor (31-2). The Lady Bears were the top seed in the Big 12 tournament and will be one of the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament when the bracket is unveiled Monday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
There wasn't really any doubt about that even before the Big 12 final, but the 61-58 victory just hammered the point home further: Baylor is a NCAA championship contender. Mulkey has depth -- reserves Kimetria Hayden and Brooklyn Pope were the sparkplugs in Baylor's comeback from the slow start. She has a stellar defense which consistently holds opponents in check; Texas A&M shot just 29.2 percent from the field (21 of 72) Saturday, including 1 of 14 from 3-point range.
And she also has a true superstar. Griner, the Big 12 player of the year this season, was the league tournament MVP, totaling 71 points, 22 rebounds and 14 blocked shots in the three games in Kansas City.
"She's such a coachable kid," Mulkey said of the sophomore center. "She's trying to bang in there, and she's trying to push and back up when they're pushing her off the block.
"Brittney has such a soft touch, and can shoot it facing the basket and can do all those things. She can elevate above you and just shoot it."
Or as Texas A&M's Danielle Adams put it so bluntly, "Her length is just so amazing to me. I think this is the only 6-8 player that I've seen that can actually play."
What Adams meant, of course, is that Griner moves and leaps like we're not used to seeing from very tall players in the women's game. Her size alone would make her formidable, but combined with her athleticism, Griner many times simply can't be stopped once she gets her hands on the ball.
"You've got to give Brittney credit for just an outstanding game she played today," Baylor senior Melissa Jones said. "It was great to be a part of it and have the experience with her.
"I think B.G.'s just done a great job from last year to this year. She's being more strategic this year of where she wants to get the ball, and getting the higher-percentage shot."
Or, as in the case with her highlight-reel shot, even when it's not high-percentage through no fault of her own, Griner is able to salvage the two points.
The victory sends Baylor into the NCAA tournament with a full head of steam, but it's not as if Texas A&M is deflated. The Aggies think seeing the likes of Baylor and Griner three times is great preparation for whatever they have to face next.
Last year, despite winning the Big 12 tournament, Texas A&M was upset in the second round by Gonzaga. The Aggies say they learned from that, and coach Gary Blair is especially confident in his backcourt of Sydney Carter and Sydney Colson. Neither shot well Saturday -- a combined 6 of 25 -- but their pressure defense and decision making are generally what drives the Aggies' engine.
Adams did not have a very good title game; she was 4 of 19 from the field, missing a long 3-pointer just before the buzzer that could have tied the score. But credit Baylor's Destiny Williams for her defense against Adams, and for what she helped Baylor do on the boards.
The Lady Bears outrebounded their three Big 12 tournament foes 145-84, and that could be a very important factor in the NCAA tournament.
So will the fact that Griner, a weapon pretty much unlike anything anyone else has, continues to improve while the rest of the Lady Bears do the same around her.
Mulkey said earlier this season the team's personality was not as intense as perhaps she'd like, and the Lady Bears are still working on that. They took care of their business in Kansas City and now seek a second consecutive Final Four berth.
"They're laid-back until I light a fire under them, or the game itself lights a fire," Mulkey said. "Not laid-back in the sense of loose or lazy. It's more that they're fun, they like to be goofy and dance.
"I've had to teach them when to be serious and when to play. You don't want them to lose their happiness and their fun attitude. But you need them to learn to lock down and focus."
Baylor did that well enough to win another Big 12 championship Saturday, and now it takes aim at an even bigger one.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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