Griffin quietly guides Lady Bears
Griffin's on-court guidance has Baylor in first Final Four since 2005
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Poised between unapologetic perfectionism and unlimited potential, Baylor point guard Kelli Griffin has the toughest job description in women's college basketball.
Please Kim Mulkey, and help Brittney Griner live up to impossible expectations.
Well, Mulkey was plenty pleased Monday night in Memphis -- moved to tears, in fact -- after Griner scored the biggest basket of her young career with less than a minute to play and gave No. 4 seed Baylor a lead it wouldn't relinquish in a 51-48 comeback victory against No. 2 seed Duke.
Two guesses which player got the ball to Griner as the clock ticked down.
As a result, Baylor is going back to the Final Four for the first time since winning the national championship in 2005.
This win might mean more to Griner. Barely three weeks after one regrettable moment made national headlines -- Griner was suspended two games after throwing a punch that broke the nose of a Texas Tech player after the two were tied up in the paint -- Griner will get the chance to display her enormous talents on a national stage and distance herself from those few seconds of video. She might even get that chance against Connecticut, the dynasty whose reign she is supposed to help end at some point during her college career.
Two days after beating Tennessee in the Lady Vols' backyard, a young team whose highs and lows over the course of a season mimicked the wingspan of its most recognizable player again lived up to the potential its coach saw when she first put it through its paces last fall.
"I remember what I said as if it was yesterday," Mulkey said. "It was in individual workouts, and after that day, I picked up the phone and called [assistant coach Leon Barmore] and said, 'There is some serious talent in this program right now. I don't know how far we can get them in this short period of time, but it's going to happen for these kids.' I wasn't even talking about Brittney Griner, but when we get them all on the same page and they learn how to guard people, we are going to enjoy coaching them."
This is exactly why, if you want to understand Baylor, you need not start with Griner or junior Melissa Jones or senior Morghan Medlock, but with Griffin -- the junior point guard and the Lady Bears' only returning starter.
It's Griffin who leads Baylor in minutes, serves up assists twice as often as she commits turnovers, rebounds like a forward -- as she did in the closing minutes Monday -- and serves as Mulkey's coach on the floor. And it's Griffin, who played with Griner in AAU ball before the freshman sensation arrived in Waco, who makes sure the big center doesn't get lost in the shuffle on offense. When Griffin picked up her second foul, with 5:18 left in the first half, Baylor had a 17-16 lead. With Griffin on the bench, the Lady Bears managed just four more points in the half and trailed by five points at halftime.
"Kelli Griffin is our general on the court," Jones said. "She is commanding everything. She's controlling us. She's the one that keeps us calm and cool on the court because she's going to run our offense, let us know what defense we're in, always talking to us. If she weren't on the floor, it's hard to play without her."
It's also Griffin who bears the biggest brunt of criticism when Mulkey, the former standout point guard at Louisiana Tech, finds a bone to pick in practice.
As Shanay Washington explained, "Whenever she makes a pass, [Mulkey] is like, 'If I was playing, Brittney would have had eight dunks in a game.' She likes to compare herself with Kelli all the time."
Given the way the freshmen sometimes drive their coach to distraction, including at times against Duke, it's no small feat that Griffin is the clubhouse leader in catching flak.
"There's no question I'm hardest on the point guard play," Mulkey said. "I played the position. People were hard on me that coached me. She's my coach on that floor. Much is asked of Kelli Griffin, and she just keeps plugging away. She doesn't ever get aggravated at me. She doesn't ever stop playing. She got big defensive rebounds at the end of the game to secure the win."
The team has grown up around Griffin all season, just as it rallied with her back on the court in the closing minutes Monday. Trying to find some semblance of offense with a smaller lineup against Duke's suffocating traps, Baylor had three freshmen on the court for many of the tensest moments of its rally from a 10-point deficit in the second half. It got its biggest basket from Griner and perhaps its biggest play from Kimetria Hayden, who imitated Larry Bird in the 1987 NBA playoffs in picking off an inbounds pass under the basket and shoveling a pass to Jones for a layup that cut the lead to one with 2:10 to play.
The kids aren't perfect. Seconds before her steal, Hayden and freshman Jordan Madden caught an earful from Mulkey for failing to corral a rebound. Griner got the same treatment when she headed to the bench for a very brief break in the second half.
But with Mulkey in one ear on the bench and Griffin in the other on the court, they learned things the hard way while piling up minutes and mistakes when Jones missed 15 games during the middle of the season.
"I think with the absence of MJ earlier this season, they had to grow up quickly," Griffin said. "And it's paying off. We can put them in the game now at a different position and they know it. Earlier this year, if you put them in a different position, it was probably a turnover coming or giving up a fast break. They're definitely learning fast. It's been great trying to guide them and teach them because they want to learn. They want to be in the game."
Please Mulkey, feed Griner and mentor a bevy of other young players? It's not an easy job.
"I think that Kelli puts up with a lot with what she has to deal with coach Mulkey," Jones said. "But I think that really does help her with who she is becoming and who she started with, who she was as a freshman to where she is now. She's grown tremendously."
Which is a big reason why Baylor and its 6-foot-8 star have done exactly the same thing on the road to the Final Four.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.