Griner, Baylor topple No. 1 Tennessee
So much for that Tennessee-UConn showdown in San Antonio, huh?
The first No. 1 seed has fallen in the women's NCAA tournament, and in the end it really wasn't even that close. No. 4 seed Baylor, led by an amazing game from freshman Brittney Griner, upset top-seeded Tennessee 77-62 at a FedEx Forum in Memphis filled with stunned orange-clad fans.
The 6-foot-8 Griner had 27 points, seven rebounds and 10 blocked shots, keeping Tennessee's offense bottled up inside and forcing guards Shekinna Stricklen (18 points) and Angie Bjorklund (12) to try to do most of the damage from the perimeter. But those two combined to make just 12 of 39 shots and were the only Tennessee players to score in double figures.
Tennessee shot 32.9 percent from the field for the game, while Baylor shot 49.1 percent. Baylor senior Morghan Medlock had 12 points and 11 rebounds, while junior Kelli Griffin added 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
The NCAA tournament bracket was set up with UConn and Tennessee in the same half, as it was clear that the selection committee wanted to see the two longtime titans meet in the Final Four.
Tennessee and UConn have not played each other since January 2007, after which coach Pat Summitt declined to renew their series. UConn and Tennessee might have met in the 2008 NCAA title game, but the Huskies were defeated by Stanford in the semifinals.
Tennessee lost in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, while UConn won the national championship. This year, as UConn has continued to cruise along undefeated, Tennessee seemed like it had lifted its program back to Final Four status.
Instead, it was Baylor, the 2005 national champion, that showed it might be a program ready to return to the Final Four -- where it would be the "home" team in Texas.
Baylor will have to get one more victory to make that happen. But the way this youthful group looked Saturday, Baylor -- which joined its men's program in the Elite Eight -- will be tough to stop.
"I've been saying all along this team was going to be good," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "I didn't know when it would happen."
It actually has been happening gradually during the course of this season, which opened with Baylor losing to Tennessee 74-65 in Knoxville on Nov. 15. That was Griner's college debut, and she had 15 points and four blocks that day.
Griner asserted herself throughout the rest of the season, figuring out how to deal with a variety of defenses and establish herself as a premier defensive stopper.
Baylor's growth as a team was slowed by a stress-reaction injury that kept junior Melissa Jones out of the lineup for 15 games. She came back in limited capacity for the Big 12 tournament, during which Baylor beat Colorado in the opening round but then fell to Oklahoma in the quarterfinals.
Baylor was without both Jones and Griner (we'll get to that in a second) in its Big 12 tourney opener and then both returned for the OU game.
Mulkey said after that 59-54 loss to the Sooners, "I do like our chances going into the NCAA tournament. We are a very good basketball team when we are all playing and you don't have suspensions and injuries.
"It's going to be fun to coach this group through the NCAAs, and it's going to be a lot more fun if I can live long enough to watch 'em the next couple of years. Because they're so talented. It will happen for them."
If Baylor keeps playing like it has so far in the NCAA tournament -- having opened with victories against Fresno State and Georgetown -- a lot could happen for the Green Gang this year.
As rosy as things looked Saturday for Baylor, things were gloomy back on March 3 in the aftermath of a 69-60 victory at Texas Tech. That's because of the punch that Griner threw at Tech's Jordan Barncastle, when the freshman was upset after a post scuffle. Barncastle suffered a broken nose, while Griner faced a torrent of criticism.
Mulkey suspended her for two games and promised there would be far more punishment behind the scenes than people would ever see. But Mulkey also said that Griner was a "gentle giant" and asked fans and media to not judge the teenager on just that one incident.
Griner has vowed to move on from it and show people that it's her game that deserves the attention. She had an NCAA tournament-record 14 blocks, helping keep Georgetown's offense nearly nonexistent, in a 49-33 second-round victory.
That sent Baylor to the Sweet 16, where a year ago the waiting-for-Griner team fell to Louisville. Baylor was the perceived underdog facing Tennessee, which won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles and had not lost since Jan. 21 to Georgia. Tennessee's only other loss was Dec. 19 at Stanford.
Baylor, meanwhile, lost nine games this season. But it was Baylor that dictated how most of Saturday's game went, leading 30-28 at the break. When it looked as if Tennessee was starting to assert control by taking a 53-48 lead with 8 minutes, 11 seconds left, Baylor switched into a higher gear. Jones' 3-pointer with 6:51 to play gave Baylor the lead for good at 57-55.
Other than this season's opener, the only previous time Baylor had faced Tennessee was a very memorable game. That was in the 2004 Sweet 16, when a controversial late foul call sent Tennessee's Tasha Butts to the foul line for the winning free throws with two-tenths of a second left.
This time, though, there was no drama at the end. Baylor and Griner were solidly in control.
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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