Baylor-Tennessee Preview

BY foxsports • March 26, 2010

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has noticed a change in Brittney Griner's play since her suspension for punching a Texas Tech player in the face.

The 6-foot-8 freshman has been more timid and careful on the floor, where she's used to being surrounded and targeted by players far smaller than she.

Maybe the cure is a dose of Tennessee's 6-foot-6 center, Kelley Cain.

``This game I will definitely get back to the way I was playing before the incident happened and be able to go against someone in the post and not have someone on my hip where I go to the post hard and the defender falls over,'' Griner said with a half grin. ``I'm definitely looking forward to it.''

The feeling is mutual.

``Nobody's in my rib cage - they're on my level,'' Cain said. ``Since it happens so rarely, I really enjoy playing somebody who's my height or taller.''

The fourth-seeded Lady Bears (25-9) and top-seeded Lady Volunteers (32-2) bring two of the most imposing post games in the nation to the semifinals of the Memphis regional of the NCAA women's tournament.

Tennessee, an eight-time national champion under coach Pat Summitt, is playing in its 28th round of 16 and has won all but four of those games. Baylor, making a second straight regional semifinals appearance, has won only once in five tries, beating Minnesota in 2005 and eventually winning the national title.

Saturday's game is a rematch of the first game of the season for both teams, one that Tennessee won 74-65 on strong inside play.

``We know Baylor, but guess what? They know us,'' Summitt said. ``It's a different team.''

Griner struggled in that first game, her collegiate debut. She helped Baylor grabbed a first-half lead but found herself on the bench early in the second half after picking up her fourth foul.

Aside from the unwanted attention that came after she punched Jordan Barncastle, Griner has changed quite a bit since then, blossoming into the nation's premier female shot-blocker and dunker.

She averages 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.2 blocks per game - only five Division I teams average more blocks than she does in a game. She's dunked four times this season, not counting the one she put down in an exhibition game.

She set an NCAA record with 14 blocks in Baylor's 49-33 win over Georgetown in the tournament's second round.

Griner isn't the only one who's improved. With junior guard and team captain Melissa Jones on the bench through much of Big 12 Conference play with a leg injury, Mulkey was forced to play more of her freshmen than she would have otherwise.

``I suppose the silver lining to Melissa Jones' injury is that the freshmen had to grow up a lot quicker than we really wanted them to,'' Mulkey said. ``On the floor, it certainly helped them.''

But it's not just the Lady Bears who have improved. Tennessee has done some growing of its own.

A year ago, the Lady Vols were on the practice court instead of playing in their 28th-straight round of 16. They lost to Ball State 71-55 in the opening round of the tournament, and Summitt put them back to work with the challenge that a first-round loss ``better not happen again.''

And even though Tennessee beat Baylor to open the season, the players spent much of the season trying to play with maximum effort for a full game.

``As a team, we're more committed to defense and rebounding,'' sophomore guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen said. ``Some of us played when we wanted to, and we didn't bring our A-game all the time. We never reached a 40-minute game last year. This year, we're more committed as a team and working hard.''

Cain has been at the heart of Tennessee's improvement as one of the Lady Vols' vocal leaders on the floor. She's also been the subject of double-team coverage this season, and her teammates have helped make opponents pay.

Cain has blocked her own share of shots, setting a Tennessee record with 12 against LSU in February. She averages 3.5 blocks per game.

``You can't play for Pat Summitt and not get better,'' Mulkey said. ``She is tremendously better.''

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