Griner has 2 more chances at Baylor for title

Brittney Griner has two more chances to get back to the NCAA

Final Four and win a national championship at Baylor. The 6-foot-8

All-American will have plenty of familiar faces around her.

After getting to the national semifinals when Griner was a

freshman last year, the Lady Bears (34-3) came up one game short of

that this season even while setting a school record for wins,

winning the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, and being

a No. 1 NCAA seed for the first time.

”We’re young. A lot of learning to do,” said Griner, among

seven sophomores on a roster with only one senior who played

significant minutes. ”The future’s bright for us. We just gotta

get in the gym, get everybody on the same page, get everybody

mentally tough.”

Baylor had beaten Texas A&M three times this season, but

lost 58-46 to its Big 12 rival in the Dallas Regional championship

game Tuesday night. The Aggies (31-5), with two seniors and three

juniors in their starting lineup, are going to the Final Four for

the first time.

”We’ve had a great year,” coach Kim Mulkey said. ”But we’ve

elevated our program to a level where we want to be disappointed.

You want to see kids cry.”

Mulkey has 298 victories in her 11 seasons at Baylor, which had

never been to the NCAA tournament and was the Big 12’s worst team

when she arrived. The Lady Bears have made it to the NCAA round of

16 six times the last eight years, and won the 2005 national

championship.

”She’ll be back in next year. Don’t worry about my girl Kim,”

said Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, an assistant coach at

Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s when Mulkey was the point guard

and they won two national championships. ”They’re that good.”

The Lady Bears do have Griner, the dominating center that Blair

and so many other coaches have declared the best player in the

country.

Griner averaged 23 points and 7.8 rebounds this season and led

the NCAA in blocked shots again with 170, pushing her career total

to 393.

Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams, also sophomore post players,

just completed their debut seasons at Baylor after transferring

from other schools. Starting freshman point guard Odyssey Sims

averaged 13.1 points while shooting 48 percent overall and 45

percent on 3-pointers.

The only senior who played much was Melissa Jones, the gritty

starting guard who played the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments without

full vision in her right eye after banging her head going for a

loose ball last month. She had 13 points and seven rebounds in her

final game.

”I’m going to miss M.J. We’re all going to miss her,” Griner

said. ”I wish I had some more years with her.”

Griner can anticipate the return of guard Shanay Washington, a

32-game starter as a freshman last year. Washington sustained a

season-ending knee injury in practice only five games into this

season.

In the season finale, Griner scored 20 points with nine

rebounds. But she made only 6 of 18 shots from the field, including

a missed dunk attempt. She was coming off a career-high 40 points

two days earlier against Green Bay that followed 30 points her

previous game.

The Lady Bears shot only 31 percent (15 of 48) and had 20

turnovers.

”The hardest part is losing, but then you evaluate if you lost

to an A&M team that shot lights out and they were unstoppable

and they were just awesome, you almost can handle that a little bit

better,” Mulkey said.

Texas A&M led the entire game despite shooting only 34

percent in its lowest-scoring game of the season. Newly minted

All-American Danielle Adams scored only six points, all after

halftime.

”Hopefully they’ll remember how it feels in that locker room,”

Mulkey said. ”I know they remembered how it felt last year when we

beat Duke to get to the Final Four and that was a happy locker

room. And this year it’s not so happy. But you want them to

remember it all.”

Along with three wins over Texas A&M this season, Baylor

also beat Notre Dame and Tennessee, the team the Irish beat this

week for a Final Four berth. The Lady Bears lost by a point in

November at Connecticut, which could be a three-time defending

national champion when it plays in Waco next season.

”We’ll take a lot (from this season). Not just from the NCAA

tournament, but we’ll take a lot from the non-conference

opponents,” Mulkey said. ”We played all the top teams out there.

And we will get better. You can only get better if you play the

best.”